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Dark doings down in the woods?

Friday 12 November 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, once a committed supporter of the Forestry Commission but now somewhat more sceptical, ponders on what is happening behind closed doors in Westminster which makes it difficult to see the wood from the trees

IF you go down in the woods next spring, be prepared for a big surprise. There will be no Teddy Bears’ Picnic, as the old song once related, because you – and the teddy bears – might not be able to enter those woods, on what may no longer be public land.

Rumour has it that the Forestry Commission, by far Britain’s biggest landowner with 2.6million acres, is up for grabs as part of the Coalition Government’s great austerity drive. And, for me, the strange thing is that as a one-time passionate supporter, I am no longer sure that a sell-off would be an altogether bad thing.


Up for the chop

The rumour about the commission’s demise could be entirely false – as in the case of the mis-reported death of the American author Mark Twain – but its source is the Public Bodies Bill on the future of the Forestry Commission’s estate, which had its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday (9 November).

If passed into law, it will give Defra the power to do whatever it wishes with the commission’s huge land holdings, including, at worst, selling them off or, at the very least, forbidding public access, a thought that has set alarm bells ringing at Britain’s oldest countryside conservation body, the Open Spaces Society.

Says Kate Ashbrook, the society’s general secretary: “It is hard to conceive why ministers want such draconian powers unless they intend to dispose of much or all of the Forestry Commission’s estate.

“At present, the public has a right to roam on 90 per cent of the 200,000 hectares of freehold Forestry Commission land in England (an area the size of West Sussex). This land provides immense pleasure to people, for recreation and relaxation. The recreational opportunities are as varied as the forests themselves.”

Now the last thing I would want to do is restrict people’s access to the countryside, particularly to poor townies who unlike me don’t already live there. But ever since Margaret Thatcher took and axe to the then huge powers of the commission, it has to me seemed in a bureaucratic decline into some sort of limbo land where it was neither private nor public.

When my children were young, my family’s favourite holiday spot was a Forestry Commission plantation on the banks of Loch Awe in the very wildest part of Scotland’s Western Highlands.

where square miles of monotone pines had been planted on some of our best landscapes...

There, we lived in charming, beautifully constructed log cabins and spent our days walking, fishing, bird watching – for golden eagles, no less – and our evenings in the foresters’ club, which had a café, a gym, a childrens’ games room and a thriving bar where a spontaneous ceilhi was likely to break out on a weekend evening.

Then Maggie swung her axe. We went back with our son and his children on a nostalgic journey five years ago and it ended, for some at least, in real tears. Most of the foresters had been made redundant, their commission-owned houses sold off, those wood cabins run down and neglected, and the club bar best suited to funeral wakes.

Since then, the commission seems to me to have gone into a steady decline – and it was never all that popular here in the Yorkshire Dales, where square miles of monotone pines had been planted on some of our best landscapes, mainly to provide pit props for a coal mining industry that was already using metal and concrete props and was soon to disappear completely anyway.

So here’s the good news: whilst state-owned pine plantations are on the way out, they are being replaced by native broadleaf woodland planted mainly by voluntary charities like the Woodland Trust and private landowners like the Duke of Devonshire on his estate at Bolton Abbey, near Skipton here in North Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust announced last week that it was nearing its target of planting one million trees in the Dales – which were largely de-forested to make way for sheep pasture in the 19 Century – and this week, the Woodland Trust revealed hyper-ambitious plans to plant 20 million trees a year across England for the next 20 years.

Many of those saplings will be given free to schools and voluntary groups in inner city areas to “green” some of the most deprived districts of the land. The rest will go into our countryside, where we have been hacking down our forests since the Iron Age to give us on of the lowest areas of tree cover in Europe.

This mainly voluntary effort is very much part of David Cameron’s “Big Society” dream. And if it leaves our woodlands less encumbered by bureaucracy and interference from Whitehall, so much the better – so long as public access is guaranteed. Time, I hope, to see the wood and the trees.

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