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Housing boom threat to already tree-poor Britain

Friday 05 October 2007

Our tree-loving countryside commentator John Sheard ponders yet another victim of the law of unintended consequences: Britain's fast dwindling ancient woodland which makes us the tree-poorest nation in Europe

NOT many people know that the actor Michael Caine never said "Not many people know that." The phrase was in fact invented by the late comic actor Peter Sellers, who used it in a message on his answer phone after spending a night with the cockney actor discussing the Guinness Book of Records.

Now here's a record that I didn't know, either, and one which makes me sad and even a little ashamed: Britain has less ancient woodland than any other country in Europe, a mere 12% of our land area compared with an average of 44%.

ancient oak tree near bolton abbey
At risk: jewel in the country crown

I had known for some years that broadleaf, native trees are pretty thin on the ground, thanks in no small measure to extensive conifer forestry in the post-World War 11 years. I knew, too, that there are some conservation bodies like the Yorkshire Dales National Park which are trying to plant more.

This, of course, takes time: many of our few mature trees date from the 19th and even the 18th Centuries. But I did not realise that most of the damage has been done since the 1930s, during which time our woods have shrunk by 50%. And, Lord help us, they could be halved yet again if Gordon Brown gets his way to build millions more houses in the countryside.

I am indebted for these figures to one of our outstanding conservation charities, the Woodland Trust, which has planted seven million trees and manages more than 1,000 woods and forests, including Skipton Woods nestling under the towering ramparts of the town's 900-year-old Norman castle, one of the treasures of the Yorkshire Dales.

Trouble is, most of those new trees will still be mere saplings when thousands more acres of mature trees are felled to make way for Brown's grandiose building plans - even my two-year-old grandson will only partially benefit and the luckier beneficiaries of this boom will live in the 22nd Century.

I have never seen any leading politician expressing any concern about our dwindling woods

Another vital fact that had passed me by belies the widespread belief that this new housing boom is mainly concentrated in the South East. For as the Campaign to Protect Rural England revealed this week, half a million homes are planned for Yorkshire and Humberside by 2020, a figure which has shocked even Labour supporters (see News, Oct 2).

These new houses are largely needed because as the European Union expands more migrant workers are expected to arrive in Britain from Eastern Europe, it is also a fact that more of us Brits are choosing to live alone than ever before.

Certainly, I have never seen any leading politician expressing any concern about our dwindling woods yet they are under the most severe threat, according to the Woodland trust:

More than 470 ancient woods are at present under threat from development; 183 face being grubbed up make way for new roads; and 126 could be damaged to make way for new utility services. There is even a threat to four by paint-ballers and war-gamers!

The trust has issued these figures in the form of a questionnaire, firstly to increase public awareness of an on-going environmental disaster and secondly to raise funds for future conservation schemes. It is difficult to imagine a better way to preserve some of the jewels in the crown of our landscape.

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