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What future for our forests?

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 17:38 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Our woodland faces an uncertain future. Amidst the furore surrounding the government's plans about the future ownership and management of England's public forest comes an altogether different piece of news which could affect our trees just as much.

New research has revealed that the horse chestnut – the conker tree – is under even more threat than we previously thought. It was well known that the leaf miner moth was causing cosmetic damage to the species but the latest study shows that it’s much worse than that.

“The future does not look promising for a tree that, up until six to eight years ago, had thrived in the UK for the past 400 years,” said Dr Glynn Percival from the University of Reading.

Horse chestnuts aren’t the only ones in danger. Native oak species are under a growing threat from a disease called Acute Oak Decline. Worryingly it seems to effect older trees and there have been increasing reports of it over the last few years.

The exact cause and how many trees are affected are still unknowns but some tree scientists are comparing it to Dutch elm disease, which eventually killed over 80% of the UK’s elms.

So that’s horse chestnuts and oaks in trouble. Anything else? Sadly yes. Although not as iconic as these two, the Japanese larch is another species in big danger.

In the past couple of years serious outbreaks of the ramorum disease – for which there is no cure - have been spreading across the country. The disease not only kills the larch quickly but spreads deadly spores. To combat this spread, the Forestry Commission have earmarked 4 million trees for destruction. If the disease spreads to ecologically important woodland plants, the result could be even more serious.

“Forget the latest row about Government plans to sell off the Forestry Commission,” said the Daily Mail about the disease. “This is much more serious. After all, you can’t privatise a corpse.”

The government plans themselves, described as the biggest change of land ownership in Britain since the Second World War, are almost universally unpopular. In a recent YouGov opinion poll 84% of respondents thought that our woodland should be kept in public ownership and the Save Our Forests petition has at time of writing almost 400,000 signatures.

However, at the moment it’s impossible to calculate the potential impact on wildlife and the environment of these plans with any degree of certainty. Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph is excellent on the economics and the analysis from the Guardian’s John Vidal of how the plans have alienated left, right and centre must be sobering reading for the government.

We can disagree with these plans on moral, political or economic grounds, but can we say categorically that they're more of a threat to our woodland than leaf miner moth, Acute Oak Decline or the ramorum disease? And if not, why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops about them?


  • Comment number 1.

    The English forest & woodlands including moorlands sale would appear to be Ideology over reality. Just published this morning 2nd February 2011, in the Guardian are the figures proving the sell-off is uneconomic, I quote:

    "The coalition is expected to lose money selling off hundreds of thousands of acres of English woodland, government documents show

    A joint Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forestry Commission study shows that government can expect the disposal of the land to cost £679m over 20 years but the benefits will only be £655m.

    The cost-benefit study says the government should expect to lose substantial income from the sale of timber and recreation licences, and that it will have to pay millions of pounds in compensation and redundancies. In addition, charities and other groups taking on the management of woodland will have to be given financial incentives.

    The study is particularly embarrassing for government coming only hours before a Commons debate on the sell-off plans. The debate will have no direct bearing on the public bodies bill which, if passed, will allow government to sell off 100% of its English forest estate, but it is expected to indicate the strength of feeling among MPs, and could lead to amendments before formal debates in the House of Lords and Commons in the next few weeks.

    According to the report, the proposal to transfer the "heritage" forests – including the New Forest in Hampshire and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire – to one or more conservation charities could cost £507.9m but would earn government £495.9m. While heritage woodlands should earn over £220m if put on the market, the report says the majority were "unsellable at a political and practical level".

    Leasing the large-scale commercial woodlands like Kielder Forest in Northumberland would cost between £579.1m and £748.7m but would yield between £573.1m and £737.8m, the report says. Woodland earmarked to be offered to communities would involve costs of £234.1m and bring in an estimated £231.9m, it said.

    The report also warns of other hidden costs in the sell-off. Buyers may be unwilling to continue "favourable" contract terms with local timber processors and the rural economy could be hit via redundancies."

    This emasculation of the Forestry Commission, because the loss of English FC means job losses in the Scottish FC HQ & research centre too, does not bode well in the research, advice, and resources available to monitor and fight the tree diseases you have outlined in this Blog. The cut back of Council funding in England is likely to see money being taken away from Parks & Recreation departments and other sections responsible for trees and wildlife areas. What will that mean for the monitoring and control of the diseases.

    The next proposed big loss for England is our Nature Reserves, some of which contain forests and woodland. Today in The Independent 2nd February 2011:

    "The wardens of England's 140 state-run national nature reserves want to form their own mutual company to save these "wildlife jewels in the crown" from the consequences of government proposals to dispose of them.

    In a policy closely echoing its much-criticised sell-off of the public forests, the Government is seeking to abandon the responsibility of running the official nature reserves system which has existed for 60 years, and holds some of England's most precious wildlife sites.

    For several months, ministers and officials have been negotiating with wildlife charities from the National Trust to the RSPB to try to persuade them to take over the reserves, which are currently managed by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England, and range from Lindisfarne in Northumberland to The Lizard in Cornwall, and in size from the three-quarters of an acre of Horn Park Quarry in Dorset to the 22,000 acres of The Wash.

    Sir John Lawton, chairman of the soon-to-be-abolished Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is critical of the Government's wish to divest itself of its nature reserves in the first place. "This is an absolutely disgraceful abnegation of government responsibility," he said. "There's no other civilised government in the world which doesn't acknowledge the responsibility it has for nature conservation.""

    For myself, I fear that the wonderful English wildlife we love to go out and enjoy and see on Springwatch and Autumnwatch is under a greater attack than that which is threatening some species of trees.

  • Comment number 2.

    The Telegraph has run a piece on the larch problem today: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/8298946/Red-alert-in-Britains-forests-as-Black-death-sweeps-in.html

    It's well worth a read.

  • Comment number 3.

    What concerns me most about the UK Government's proposal, as pointed out by the first commenter above, is the potential emasculation of the Forestry Commission nation wide, which is bound to affect their capacity to survey and research diseases and infestations such as those referred to in the main article.

    On top of that, the Forestry Commission is heavily instrumental in providing practical support and channelling grant aid to other projects such as the "Trees for Life" regeneration of the native Caledonian forest in the Scottish Highlands, and the "Scottish Squirrel Survey".

    They are currently involved in the identification and creation of so called refuge forest areas to provide long term habitat for the endangered Red Squirrel in the Scottish Highlands. This is a desperately long term project which requires stability and dedicated effort over decades and I fear for the future of these types of initiatives.

  • Comment number 4.

    So the woodlands are sold off into private hands. Lots and lots of new owners. There is an outbreak of a disease that kill trees. Something has to be done about it. Trees that are affected have to be identified and treated or cut down and destroyed. Who is going to do this? The forestry commission? A new forestry police? Who will pay for it? How much time will be wasted trying to identify the owner in order to gain access? Will owners seek compensation?
    Let the Forestry Commission get on with what they are doing. They aren't perfect but they are getting better. Why make a difficult job even harder?

  • Comment number 5.

    You've hit the spot Peregrine99. I love your comments.

    In my view, I guess it depends on who buys the woodlands as to how they are looked after. It's not just woodlands that need looking after though, what about the moorland and heathlands?

    Our government aren't interested in the countryside, the wildlife, the flora and fauna.

    Yet it should all be preserved for future generations. If we lose of this natural land, who knows what new diseases human life will suffer from, without the trees to suck up the poisons in the air and neutralise them.


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