The autumn colours this year are lovely - last weekend's winds put a lot of leaves on the ground but there are still many leaves on the trees near where I live and I'm looking forward to more weeks of greens, golds, reds and browns.

Before next autumn's colours delight us, a general election will have taken place and we will certainly see cuts in government spending and perhaps a reorganisation of government departments and agencies.

So what about the Forestry Commission if we are thinking autumn colours?  Set up in 1919 to ensure a strategic reserve of pit props for the mining industry the Forestry Commission is now a non-Ministerial government department whose aims are to protect, expand and promote the sustainable management of woodland and increase its value to society and the environment

My experience of FC staff is that they are a very enthusiastic bunch, and good on delivering on the ground, but their enthusiasm is sometimes greater for expanding and promoting the management of woodland than for delivering the wider public benefits which could come from the land under FC's management.  There are many, many exceptions to that generalisation but, if anything, the wider vision of what Forestry Commission England can deliver has narrowed in recent years. 

I found this description of what the Dutch Forest Service, Staats bos beheer, does very interesting.  At least in words, this seems a more rounded and progressive definition for what a state forest service should do.  There are real questions about whether the state has a part to play in growing commercial timber crops - since we don't have a state fishing fleet, or state farms, and we no longer need that strategic reserve of timber for the mines, isn't growing trees just a business like growing wheat, oil seed rape or potatoes?

The Dutch model seems pretty relevant to the English situation.  Both are crowded countries with high population densities and have suffered great losses of biodiversity-rich habitats in recent  decades.  Staats bos beheer manages 250,000ha with c1000 staff and Forestry Commission England manages about 260,000ha with about 800 staff.

FCE already has a large area (c60,000ha) of non-forest land under its management (including a large heathland estate - but FCE has been a bit slow in contributing fully to the government heathland recreation targets) and is converting another large area (c50,000ha) back to restore native woodland on ancient woodland sites where conifers were planted in the past.  So we are already getting on for about half of the land area being committed to wider wildlife, landscape and other public goods rather than hard-nosed traditional forestry.  This is good - that's probably what a state forest service should do although the Dutch model is far clearer about the direction of travel and, I guess, the direction leads to a much closer fit between what the Forestry Commission does and what Natural England does. 

Whatever comes out of the next twelve months before we see the autumn colours again, we should seek to ensure that the really special areas of land currently managed by FCE remain protected for their wildlife and landscape value.  A time of financial cuts and government reorganisation is always a dangerous time for the natural world (which is why we'd like you to sign the RSPB's Letter to the Future please!) but a secure future for the wildlife that has been protected by  the Forestry Commission for so many years needs to be part of that future.

  • Sooty and Dave - glad that's sorted out!

    Taffy2 - using less would be part of the answer but yes we will need timber.  It's where we grow it that is the tricky decision - and we would argue that it shouldn't always be rich wildlife habitats which provide the 'new' land for further agricultural, forestry or any other type of production.

    Syldata -  almost!  Thousands of square kiometres would be hundreds of thousands of hectares so that isn't quite true for England at least.  Some of the 'offending' tree species on heathland are absolutely non-native but many of them are Scots pine - so native to the UK at least.  But yes I agree with you - we do have a big task ahead to rehabilitate damaged habitats and ecosystems, and I can see, that having taken your name from the Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata) you would be particularly worried about heathland!  It feels as though the Dutch forest service, the staats bos beheer, might just take a more enthusiastic view of that  way forward.

  • Mark you are too generous about FC!

    Isn’t it the case that this body owns or manages alien tree species on thousands of square kilometres that cover upland, chalk grassland, and lowland heathland habitats? We have a great task ahead of us to start to rehabilitate damaged habitats and ecosystems, and in this case, the FC estate (all owned or managed on the publics behalf) is one of the very best places to do this for heathland, etc. The only problem is, that a body set up to do trees, is very very unlikely to want to do away with them!

  • Sooty - sorry, you are wrong! RSPB has been part of the Mull Eagle Hide since it first started in 2000 and we also employed the eagle ranger at that time. But you're right on one thing: it was 'free' although donations were encouraged. However, none of this work would have been possible without our friends at Forestry Commission Scotland who do so much at Loch Frisa for the sea eagles and the project. They provided the fabulous new hide (which is still open - call 01680 812 556 to book a trip) and carry out much of the work each year which has helped make the Hide the amazingly successful visitor attraction it is today. The big difference though is that now there is a very modest charge for the two hour ranger-led trips to see the spectacular sea eagles (just £4 adults/£2 children/islanders free). All the proceeds go back to another of the partners in the project, the Mull & Iona Community Trust. They use the money (a staggering £20,000 so far in 2009) to help fund a local seasonal ranger job, buy new equipment for the project and at least 50% of the proceeds (so £10,000 this year) is awarded back to various good causes in the island community via grants of up to £500. And that sort of money can go a long way for Mull & Iona groups like Young Musicians of Mull, Athletics Club, Gaelic groups, local schools and youth clubs, village halls, War Memorial restoration projects and the like. It's an amazing example of the island's iconic wildlife, in this case sea eagles, connecting directly with the local community. An idea perhaps for the English sea eagle project to consider? I'm sure Sooty wouldn't object to paying £4 for a trip like this when the benefits are so tangible! We look forward to seeing you at the Hide one of these days as you seem to be a bit of a Mull regular. Best wishes Dave Sexton

  • I wonder about our need for wood in the future. As oil stocks dwindle, plastics will surely become more expensive, even recycled plastic can be costly to process. Won't our descendents need much more wood for so many things presently made of plastic? If so, those trees need to be planted now. I wouldn't like to think of our great, great grandchildren asking why we failed them in this as well as so many other things.

  • Don't know much about forestry commission but must remember if it is the same F C on Mull of course that when we first went to the Loch Frisa hide the lady was employed by F C and went to the trouble to let us go as we were only on a day trip.In those days I think before RSPB involved I imagine the hide was supplied by F C and it was free.We found it very impressive.Must add I THINK the facts are correct as I certainly don't want to belittle Dave Sextons part with the Loch Frisa hide but interestingly it would be nice if he corrected me if I am wrong.