Thomas Hardy used the fictional Egdon Heath in his novels to exemplify untameable nature whose enemy was civilisation.
Since Hardy was born, the area of lowland heathland has shrunken considerably and since he died the rate of loss accelerated. Some has been lost to housing, some to agriculture and much to forestry plantations. Where pine plantations have been planted there is still a window of opportunity to restore the land to heath after the crop of trees is harvested. And government policy has long been for more of this to happen but the Forestry Commission has been slow to move on this subject.
Lowland heath is an internationally important habitat - rare in world terms and unlucky enough to have been common in southern England where decades of human pressure have been greatest. The Lawton report could easily have had lowland heath in mind when it called for more, bigger, better managed and better connected habitat areas - but then again that is the refrain that applies to most habitats of conservation interest.
The RSPB has been involved in restoring heathland on many sites - here at The Lodge for one, but also places like Farnham Heath too. It can be done, and it can be popular too, once one gets over the knee-jerk reaction that any tree is a good tree even if it is an American species planted in sterile rows across a previously nature-rich habitat.
Given the huge scale of loss of heath it is surely time to 'Lawtonise' heathland and make a real difference to its extent over the next few decades. Think what a cultural asset it would be in the crowded south of England to have more areas for recreation and enjoyment of nature.
The case for restoring semi-natural habitat is overwhelming - there is so little left. But I don't think we should 'Lawtonise' it - Lawton along with Food Security and all the other sectoral bids belong in the 20th C - we need to go beyond, think bigger not just in expanding habitats but in creating landscapes & economies - the answer to trees in the wrong place is not a sectoral attack - especially one that 'blames' for activities that were at least seen as appropriate at the time, but to think forward, make the value judgements for the future and think carefully about how we best de-carbonise, reverse the decline in biodiversity and create real 'green' jobs and beautiful places in our crowded country. We need new New Foret's, huge habitats where unexpected things happen, the landscape changes and has space to move around, produces some hard products, lots of biodiversity, lots of places for people - and get away from the neatly fenced, categorised habitats of the lean years of the late 20th C. But that is asking a lot when, if anything, our way of thinking is veering more and more towards single purpose, maximum intensity production whether its wildlife or wheat.
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