The Government’s proposals to sell and lease a large proportion of Forestry Commission woodland has generated a lot of revealing political and press comment. Revealing because it shows how little most of the commentators know about the Commission, its impact on the countryside and wider land management.
Reading the breathless columns predicting environmental and landscape destruction, and access restrictions, as a result of private ownership and management of woodland you would have thought that the Forestry Commission has been the sole protector and creator of woodland and biodiversity.
A brief history lesson is in order. The Forestry Commission was created in 1919 to grow timber. The First World War had seen timber supplies, critical for the production of pit props amongst other things, heavily depleted. The Government was determined that Britain must be self sufficient in timber and began to purchase, lease and plant huge acreages of upland Britain with non-indigenous conifer plantations. These plantations changed, some would say destroyed, many extraordinary upland landscapes completely. This focus on intensive timber production was not just a feature of the early years of the Commission. Well into the 80s the Commission was still planting, and encouraging private landowners to plant, vast acreages of sitka spruce, lodge pole pine and other conifer species at densities that have produced dark, lifeless woodlands which contribute virtually nothing to biodiversity, landscape or human activities.
Of course the Forestry Commission has also acted as steward to ancient woodlands like the Forest of Dean and in recent years has focussed far more on biodiversity, sustainable forestry and public amenity, but a large proportion of its land holding remains pure and simple commercial conifer plantations. The sale or lease of such woodland with, of course, legal protection for those currently enjoying access to them cannot do any more harm than their original creation. In fact private owners may well seek to increase biodiversity especially if they have an interest in shooting and hunting.
Yet the idea that the Forestry Commission is a wholly benign and positive conservation organisation will continue to be promoted by those who are ignorant of the truth or who simply want a stick, or tree, with which to bash the Government. We no longer expect the Government to mine coal or produce steel so why on earth should it still be in the business of producing timber? We all want to conserve and create sustainable woodland with environmental and amenity value, but selling or leasing commercial Forestry Commission woodland is a wholly different debate. Those who are so keen to wade in to debates about the countryside should, at the very least, get their facts straight first.
This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine