By David T Breaker
The countryside has the ability to stir strong emotions in the English psyche. Woodlands for the urban dweller hold a particular power; from children familiarised with the "deep, dark wood" of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, the mystic magical forest realms of Harry Potter and Snow White, to the exciting out of laws reach of Robin Hood or Swallows and Amazons, forests are places where things are different, somehow magic, somehow free. They lay beyond the laws of reality, of parents, of the Sheriff, and as children become adults this emotional attachment remains. I know because I love them too.
Unlike many of those protesting and campaigning against the Coalition's plans, however, I didn't get my love of woodland largely from books or occasional visits but rather from the woods themselves on a regular basis. I am a country lover, having grown up in the rural villages of mid-Kent, with its hills and valleys dotted with broad leaf woodlands, through which on weekends and school holidays we would often walk (or quad bike).
The woods weren't the dark or magical places of literature but rather light and living, diverse in species from birch and chestnut through to the eponymous oak and – greatest of all – the magnificent ancient yew beside the church, its core hollow for centuries and a favoured den of children, dating back to years BC according to the legend or at least back as far as when Druids worshipped on the site and dense impenetrable woodland covered this side of the county.
When the Government announced plans to privatise the woods, many would have thought I'd object as many including a number of Conservative MPs do – except I don't, not on current plans anyway – because for all I try l cannot think why the Government should "run" or own a single acre of forest, let alone 635,000 acres!
Now I will admit that there are bigger fish to fry for this Government, and selling off forestry seems to yield little in terms of sale price or savings in the scheme of things, but with certain figures wailing about "all of our forests being sold off", bought by "sleazy bankers" and "city spivs", I feel I should interrupt. By all of our forests, they mean 7%. And is this so bad?
I would point them to each end of my lane. At one end stands some ancient forest, a beautiful valley of trees where numerous rare flora and fauna are found; at the other a managed woodland for timber production. Both are privately owned, as are 93% of England's woodlands, and indeed all the beautiful woodlands of my childhood. The ancient woodland is owned by a Trust – exactly as is proposed by the Government for their ancient forests – and is run by volunteers who love it and care for it far more than any quangocrats could.
They allow the Boroughs of London to re-release foxes into it, which eat my chickens and get shot by the gamekeeper, but otherwise all is fine. The managed woodland is coppiced ash, felled in chunks every decade or so, the sudden sunlight resulting in a riot of foxgloves and other plants whose names I do not know. It was owned by an Estate who leased it to a tenant farmer – just as the Government plans – and it has been managed well at a profit like the other woodlands in private hands for generations.
How different this all is to the Forestry Commission. Though they have improved of late in terms of their planting, they remain distant, out of reach, overriding, with most of their forests wildernesses devoid of life beyond their lines of densely packed conifers, standing to attention mile after mile. How they can care for our ancient forests better than a local trust, with local people motivated by love and passion, I do not know.
Established largely to produce timber for coal mines, trench warfare and other strategic purposes after the First World War, the Forestry Commission is neither a grand historic legacy or a form of effective modern management. Areas such as the New Forest are Crown-owned Common Lands, governed by the ancient rights of common and Forest Laws, with the Forestry Commission being a relative newcomer to the historic relationship.
Denationalising this organisation will liberate woodland by giving it to local communities, communities free to run their woodlands as modern day commons rather than living alongside a remote outpost of an Edinburgh-based quango. It is not a threat to our ancient woodland but a return to its true tradition of local stewardship. For the managed commercial forests the change could see them join the ancient woodlands in local trusts, if there's local interest, and here the changes could be most pronounced.
Most Commission forests are largely dark, monocultural plantations of non-native conifer, planted tight in rows, which is great for growing tall, straight trunks quickly as the trees seek scarce sunlight but good for very little else. You'd be hard pressed to find bluebells, foxgloves and wildlife like in other woods, if any at all. New community owners, or nature loving private owners – of which we have many already – may choose to replant native species, restoring habitat and reintroducing wildlife. What better thing to spend a City bonus on than a woodland? Even for those forests with commercial buyers it will mean more efficient use of our sustainable timber producing capacity, increasing the supply of carbon neutral log fuel, timber for construction and paper products.
With the Forestry Commission as regulator rather than operator, higher standards of environmental stewardship can be demanded. And access – which is for many a key concern – can easily be protected by lease terms, even though it already is protected by existing "right to roam" legislation and a network of ancient footpaths, bridlepaths and other rights of way. The countryside will be as open as ever. As long as its not sold for holiday camps or off-roading type disturbances, which aren't in the White Paper, there really isn't an issue. The future is bright for our countryside, and a new era could await our forests.