Public forest estate should stay public

Kielder Forest in autumn
Kielder Forest in autumn

The recommendation that the nation’s forests should remain in public ownership has been broadly welcomed by Northumberland’s wildlife charity.

Last Wednesday, the Independent Panel on Forestry published its final report, which calls for ‘a revival of a woodland culture that appreciates how important trees are for people, for nature and the economy’.

The panel, which believes the public forest estate is a national asset, was formed following widespread criticism of the Government’s plans to sell off public woodland in February and March last year.

The sale could have affected Kielder, the largest forest in England, 12 forests totalling some 20,000 acres in Coquetdale and others near Wooler.

And now Northumberland Wildlife Trust is urging the Government to adopt the panel’s recommendations for a changed remit for the Forestry Commission to ensure it gives nature, people’s enjoyment of woodlands, and sustainable woodland management higher priority. 

Steve Lowe, the trust’s head of conservation, said: “The public forest estate is a tremendous national asset and has the potential to deliver even more benefits for wildlife and people.

“We currently invest £20million a year, which provides an estimated return of £400million. At 20:1 this is a phenomenal return on this national investment, providing huge benefits to the nation.

“The Public Forest Estate has the potential to help achieve the objectives of last year’s Natural Environment White Paper through the integration, better protection, reconnection and restoration of woodlands.

“That’s why we had hoped to see stronger recommendations from the Panel, specifically the reconnection of woodlands at a landscape-scale. 

“We want to see stronger protection for existing woodlands, especially ancient woodlands, and more urgency in the restoration of open habitats.

“We believe areas of lowland heathland, meadow and other internationally important open habitats planted with conifers should be restored with urgency.

“It is critical that the Government takes this opportunity to release this potential within the public forest estate.”

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, said: “The panel has declared that the public forest estate should not be sold off, but remain in public ownership and be defined in statute as land held in trust for the nation.

“It calls for everyone to be able to enjoy a local woodland – we should take the woods to the people by expanding both the woodlands and people’s access to them.”