Tesni Clare made some interesting points in the article ‘This is not a forest’, recently published in The Ecologist, not least about the importance of healthy forest soils.
But, as chief executive of Forestry England, my first reaction was sadness that Clare could not appreciate Bellever Forest in the way that so many thousands of others do that visit every year.
The variety of forests that we care for include ancient, natural woodlands and the country’s largest planted forest: all enjoyed by almost 27 million people and where 56 per cent of some of the country’s rarest wildlife have been found. (Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 section 41 species).
Bellever Forest is one of four distinct areas making up Dartmoor Forest with a forest plan for all to see. It is true that it is mostly conifer and produces excellent, sustainable construction-grade timber. It is also managed carefully and considerately.
Bellever Forest has Bronze Age archaeology sites; populations of rare and protected birds; and open access so people are free to roam and explore. Alongside the conifers, it also has gnarly moss-covered broadleaf trees and open meadows. The forest hums with insects and is bursting with wildflowers, fungi, lichens and ferns.
Clare’s view that the Forestry Commission, and therefore Forestry England, is “a vision of productivity and efficiency” [for timber above all else] is a little outdated. Yes, the Commission’s priority when it was established in 1919 was to replant trees lost during the First World War to create a strategic reserve of timber. Conifers were planted in huge numbers, and many were planted in places we now see as inappropriate.
But much has changed in the last hundred years, and our modern priorities are more diverse. We understand the value of forests beyond the price tag of timber. We recognise that our forests are crucial for wildlife to survive. We value forests for the spaces they provide for people to be active, connect with nature and rejuvenate.
We believe we are productive and efficient but with love and respect for our environment. We were the first sustainably certified state forestry organisation in the world. We were also the first big land manager to develop a natural capital account because we believe in demonstrating the social benefits of the places we have in our care and how we look after them.
We absolutely must learn from history and the mistakes we and others have made. Forestry England has a programme of habitat restoration, including heathlands and ancient woodlands righting wrongs of the past.
Science-led knowledge means we understand so much better the biodiversity value of these places than we did 100 years ago, when the first annual report highlighted ‘barren heath land’.
I believe success will be measured by future generations seeing living, healthy woodlands rather than who planted the most trees first. How each forest balances biodiversity, sustainable timber production and public enjoyment will vary, but one thing is key: don’t panic, plan. Know what you want, how to achieve it, and how it will survive the climate crisis.
As a nation, I am confident that we have strong measures in place to support anyone who wants to plant and manage resilient woodlands and forests. It all begins with the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) that secures sensitivity and diversity.
There are no monocultures here. UKFS is at the heart of Forestry England’s work and underpins grants from the Government. Any large new woodland will be challenged by an Environmental Impact Assessment that will look at the proposal in detail.
As Clare says, we start with the soil beneath the professional foresters’ feet. Then look up, and around, to understand the landscape and how new, diverse forests and woodlands will fit and be sensitive to the area they serve.
We should, and will, support people who want to invest in new, well-managed woodlands to take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up. It is our responsibility to make sure we do the best we can to the highest standards, using the best scientific knowledge and technology available.
I hope Clare stays passionate about England’s trees, woods and forests, and can embrace the 1,500 forests and woodlands we care for.
I believe each offers a different experience: sights, sounds, smells and emotions, and contributes to making the UK’s forests positive places for timber, nature and our own wellbeing.
Mike Seddon is chief executive of Forestry England.
Image: Simon Stuart-Miller Photography.