By Sian Atkinson
In January, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson created waves by suggesting irreplaceable ancient woodland could be included in biodiversity offsetting schemes. But it was his hasty subsequent reassurance “there are no plans to change the current protections for ancient woodland” that led the Woodland Trust to launch Enough is Enough.
Despite supposedly ‘strong’ protection for ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust is aware of more than 440 ancient woods under threat of damage or destruction from development.
Woodland Trust analysis has revealed that at least 84 ancient woods are threatened by the proposed route of High Speed 2 alone. Extending the HS2 Chilterns Tunnel by 10.4km could save over 30% of all the ancient woodland at risk from Phase 1 – yet it’s not in the Government’s plans.
Over the years this precious resource, which covers only 2% of the UK, has continued to be damaged or destroyed by quarrying, housing, roads, and other schemes.
How much? It is impossible to tell. Losses of ancient woodland are not systematically recorded. New threats such as fracking hover on the horizon.
Arguably, ancient woodland as a whole enjoys better protection than any other habitat. It receives specific mention in national planning policy guidance, with a clear presumption against its clearance for development.
And for three decades we have had a spatial record of ancient woodland – the Ancient Woodland Inventories – enabling its easy identification by local planning authorities and potential developers considering sites for building on.
But the system is not working. The value of ancient woodland is still not clearly understood, there are loopholes that make it all too easy to override protection measures.
And when all else fails, light-touch ecological assessments, inconsistencies in site classification and gaps in data mean it’s too easy for developers to call into question whether a wood is ancient or not – and use this to undermine such protection measures.
The concept of ancient woodland has been around for a long time, but was developed and actively promoted from the 1970s by ecologists such as George Peterken and Oliver Rackham, who recognized that the wildlife communities of ancient woods were generally richer than those of more recent woods, and contained a high proportion of rare and vulnerable species.
In addition these woods have cultural meaning and value. Relative lack of disturbance means archaeological features may be well preserved. They are like living history books, telling us the story of past woodland management and other land use.
Ancient woods are those thought to have been wooded continuously since at least mediaeval times, before tree planting became more common. Some may even be continuous with the first woodland established after the last Ice Age.
For convenience, the threshold date for identifying ancient woods was set at 1600, the point at which maps became more available (though in Scotland this has been revised to 1750 in line with best available map evidence).
Government recognizes that ancient woodland is irreplaceable. “Our ancient woods are quintessential features of England’s much-loved landscapes – irreplaceable, living historic monuments …”.
Not the Woodland Trust’s words, but taken from Keepers of Time, written as a statement of Government policy to better protect and value ancient woodland.
In England, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that “planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland … unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.
Natural England’s Standing Advice to local authorities on ancient woodland reinforces this guidance.
But how are the costs and benefits of destroying such a habitat to be weighed. Benefits can be more easily quantified in monetary terms, for example through jobs created or journey times reduced.
It is much harder to evaluate the social and economic contribution of an ancient wood, even when reduced to the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides.
Owen Paterson’s comments in The Times newspaper on biodiversity offsetting – suggesting 100 trees could be planted for every one cut down – completely missed the point about the value of ancient woods.
These are ecologically diverse and complex habitats in which the trees are just one player. They support rare and vulnerable species that rely on the stable conditions ancient woodland provides and are very slow to disperse, so unable to colonise new habitats easily.
As repositories of so much biological diversity, ancient woods are key to creating the essential improvements to habitat networks demanded by the Lawton Review in England.
The environment cannot not be pitted against the economy as if it were a simple question of balancing the books. Healthy, functioning ecosystems are vital for our well-being, delivering food, fuel, clean air and water, and resilience in the face of environmental change. They are the foundation on which social and economic benefits can be built.
Ancient woods are an irreplaceable wildlife-rich source from which damaged and degraded ecoystems can be restored. How can we put a monetary value on this?
Yet at Oaken Wood in Kent, 32 hectares of ancient woodland will be lost through permission granted for quarrying after a public inquiry, because the benefits were deemed to outweigh the loss.
At Smithy Wood in South Yorkshire, we see ongoing fragmentation of natural habitats as an area of ancient woodland cut into four by the M1 in the 1960s is now threatened by both a motorway service station proposal, and HS2.
The first step in creating more resilient landscapes for wildlife and people is to protect the best we already have, which means addressing the shortcomings in the protection for ancient woodland as a matter of urgency.
Our campaign Enough is Enough sets out eight steps that Government, through its appropriate departments and agencies, could take to tighten ancient woodland protection: