The Sunday Telegraph seems to have got wind of a massive sell-off of State-owned forests which may involve a third of Forestry Commission land in England over the next four years and as much as half of its land by 2020. 

Both the National Trust and the RSPB are quoted on this subject, and we both sound fairly relaxed about the principle but concerned about the detail.

It is a bit difficult to see why the State is the best organisation to grow our trees when their are plenty of commercial organisations in this business - as opposed to the fact that nobody makes money out of managing National Nature Reserves!  The Forestry Commission was set up after World War One to ensure that we would always have a home-grown supply of pit-props in future conflicts - things have moved on.  We don't have State farms growing our food, or State fishing fleets catching our fish, so we may not need State forests growing our trees.

But the FC does so much more than 'just' grow timber.  Many of the sites owned or managed by them, such as large parts of the New Forest, Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest and the less well-known Breckland forests of the Norfolk/Suffolk border, are very valuable for their landscapes, recreational opportunities and their wildlife.

The FC is a major player in the conservation of woodland butterflies (wood whites, purple emperors etc), heathland reptiles (sand lizards, adders etc) and heathland and woodland birds (nightjars, wood larks and goshawks etc).  Much of the FC estate is designated for its nature conservation interest and importance. The fate of those species and the iconic sites which they occupy will be a source of concern to us as these plans unroll.

The number of alarming tree diseases that now seem to be constraining forestry in the UK may also be a factor in determining the long-term commercial value of these forests too.

So the devil is in the detail, as always, as some FC land is of high commercial value, some of high nature conservation value, some of high value for both and some, probably, of low value for either.  But land always has some value depending on its commercial potential, character and the constraints that apply to it.  It may not only be foresters who cast an eye over our forests - housing and other commercial developers may see the land beneath the trees as being the value in any disposal plans.

And to end on a naked plug!  Back in 1990 I co-authored with Roderick Leslie (a forester - but a birder too!) a book called Birds and Forestry.  Now back in print, and as an ebook, it is of historic interest to anyone who is thinking of buying up our forests!

Anonymous
  • This is not a subject I have much knowledge on but since the comment about the Renewable Heat Initiative on a previous entry and the comment from Mirlo above I would welcome a comment from Nightjar about a news item local to me.   The Heat Initiative featured prominently in a local paper and was strongly supported by landowners involved in growing what I can only describe as a monoculture of willow for this purpose.  I applaud this initiative and constructive use of woodland but how do we ensure we retain woodland as a diverse habitat once it goes into private ownership.

  • The government Forest Enterprise  basic remit is to provide environm,ental, social and economic benefits from the forests they manage. Commercially run forestry companies remit is to make as much money as possible at whatever costs to the environment they can get away with and with no regard for social and recreational land use. What forestry commission woodlands that are left should be converted to deciduous woodland areas to  be used for recreational and environmental activities. Forestry commission woodland  sold off in the past , in one lake District case has become a motor racing circuit. Why plough vast grants and subsidies into managing  areas of farmland which bear no fruition when similar investments into existing forestry commission land holdings could provide vast environmental benefits. And why are no deciduous hardwood plantings being cultivated which would provide a future energy source form combustible fuel.

  • A very fair appraisal - FC is locked in the perception, and doesn't always do much to dispel it itself, that its mainly about timber.

    Last year the Government commissioned a report on the economic value of the Forestry Commission estate. By far and away the highest value - about 3 times timber - was recreation. Second, and new since the last similar study was carbon. Third equal came timber and biodiversity - so biodiversity is as valuable as the timber, and recreation far more valuable. Overall, the estate's value to the nation far exceeds its cost.

    That doesn't mean selling some - perhaps quite a lot - of woods will do terrible damage - many of the smaller woods in rural areas contribute little other than timber and, being remote aren't always that well managed, but as you point out its quite different for some of the large forests which are some of the nation's favourite playgrounds as well as critical for biodiversity - the New Forest is SAC, Ramsar, SSSI & National Park, Thetford Forest SPA & SSSI. Jockeyshield is right in speculating on whether we'll end up spending more buying back the benefits from private owners than we get from the sale.

    And do buy the book - and I'll admit an interest as I'm the other author !

  • Slightly surprised that you should include the Breckland forests as being valuable for their landscapes Mark. Writing of Breckland in 1954, in his excellent book Bird Pageant, A W P Robertson says:

    "... there are vast unsightly tracts of conifers with which the Forestry Commission has swamped a great part of the countryside, and romantically styled 'Thetford Chase'. These are, to put it bluntly, factories for low-grade timber ... for altering the whole character of a district they stand alone ..."

    Happily, the FC has upped its conservation game a lot in recent years, but as far as the landscape and wildlife of the Brecks is concerned, I'm with AWPR.

  • Jockeyshield - thanks.  Interesting perspective.

    redkite - indeed.  And where any money would come from i don't know since we will have less money next year rather than more!