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England Guards Forest Crown Jewels: Native, Ancient Woodlands

LONDON, England, June 29, 2005 (ENS) - Native and ancient woodlands are to be at the heart of England's new forestry policy, Minister for Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity Jim Knight announced today.

Knight and Lord Clark, chairman of the Forestry Commission, introduced “Keepers of time: a statement of policy for England’s ancient and native woodland,” a new policy that they said "will radically change the way that woodland sites and forests in London, and across England, will be managed."

"We need a strong policy framework to ensure ancient woodland, veteran trees and other native woodlands are adequately protected, sustainably managed, and provide a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits to our communities," said Knight.

Part of the new policy will be a major program of tree felling and thinning in those ancient woodlands that were converted to plantations in the last century. Millions of conifers and non-native species of trees will be gradually removed from the English landscape over the next 20 years, to be replaced with native species, such as oak, ash and beech, which will be allowed to naturally seed and regenerate.

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Autumn color in the New Forest, Hampshire, England. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
England has a total area of woodland of 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres). Ancient woodland covers about 30 percent of this area, and of this, 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) have been converted to plantations.

Lord Clark said, “Our ancient and semi-natural woodlands are the jewels in the crown of English forestry, and protecting and enhancing them will now be a high priority."

"Since the 1980s," he said, "our understanding of woodland has increased, new issues have arisen and many of the pressures on the resource have changed. The successful implementation of this policy will depend on developing new approaches and working in partnership with private owners and other key partners and stakeholders.”

Knight too emphasized the importance of involving private landowners in the new forestry regime. "It's absolutely fundamental that we work closely with the many private owners of these woodlands, and we are particularly keen to engage with people who may not be aware of the value and vulnerability of their woodlands," the minister said.

Knight

Jim Knight was elected MP for Dorset South in June 2001. As Minister for Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity, he is responsible for British forest policy. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
Threats faced by England’s ancient and native woodland include shading from planted conifers, overgrazing by deer and livestock, competition from introduced alien species, pollution from agriculture, the effects of climate change, loss to development, poor management and neglect.

England’s native woodland is especially vulnerable to these threats because those woods that remain are often small and fragmented.

Under the new policy, these threats will be addressed "as a matter of priority and urgency" said the minister, with the aim of reversing the decline of ancient and native woodland and improving its value for wildlife.

The policy aims to create new native woodland, especially where it can buffer or link the many small fragments of woodland that are spread throughout the London Region and across the country.

Ron Melville, the Forestry Commission’s Conservator in its London Region, said, “This policy comprises a comprehensive set of objectives, but there are three critical ones - firstly, preventing any further decline in London’s small but significant ancient woods by addressing the threats that they face; secondly, encouraging the restoration of conifer plantations established on ancient sites back to native woodland; and thirdly, creating more native woodland and other associated habitats, where they will complement and buffer the surviving remnants of ancient woodland in London."

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St. James's Park in central London provides a sense of space.) (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
There are currently seven million trees in Greater London, which need to be carefully managed, Melville said. Under the Mayor of London’s Tree and Woodland Framework for London, introduced last July, green spaces must be incorporated into new developments because they provide an attractive environment for business, leisure and tourism and they contribute to human and environmental health.

Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said in July, "I believe that we all have a responsibility to protect and conserve our trees and woodlands and pass them on to future generations of Londoners, enhanced rather than harmed. I would like to see more community participation in the planning and management of London’s woodlands and I want every Londoner to have access to trees and woodlands."

With only 1.4 percent of the land area in London covered by ancient woodland, there is a strong need to repair the damage to, and reverse the decline of, this important habitat, the forestry minister said today.

While the largest areas of ancient woodland are on the edge of London, often in the Green Belt, smaller more isolated areas, such as Highgate Woods and Oxleas Wood, are more centrally located. All of these sites are under considerable and increasing pressure and Knight said they require improved management if they are to be preserved and protected for public use.

Rod Leslie, chief executive of Forest Enterprise, which manages the Forestry Commission lands, said, “Most of our plantations on ancient sites will, through careful and gradual improvement, be restored to rich, semi-natural woodland. Often it is only a light touch that is required to remove or reduce a cause of decline or gradually improve their ecological quality."

The Forestry Commission has 53,000 hectares (131,000 acres) of ancient woodland on its estate and intends to lead the way in implementing the new policy.

"There is an urgency to begin the process, to turn the tide, but there is no rush to finish," said Leslie. "Indeed, the wildlife found surviving in these woods, and the visitors to them, will both prefer gradual change.”