Forestry Commission and Natural England stop new native woodland

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After more than two years of applications, consultations, mitigation offers and meetings, the Forestry Commission have turned down my proposal to plant a 6ha plot of former sheep pasture on the fringes of the North Pennines in County Durham. After all that time, money and emotional investment, the reason..? Three pairs of golden plovers, who were seen nesting on the nearby grouse moor in 2021, might want to use the field as ‘in-bye feeding habitat’.

Real tensions exist between all ecosystems and habitats – red and grey squirrels; foxes and birds’ nests; sheep pasture and woodlands; farmland and wetland; weeds and bees. Creating a new native woodland has its downsides, and of particular concern at South Field has always been the premise, forcefully argued by Natural England, that predators (and by that they mean foxes and crows) will be attracted to woodland and will stray onto nearby moorland where pairs of endangered curlews and other ground-nesting waders will have their eggs predated.

It has always been my argument that the biggest threat to those birds is, ultimately, climate change and broad-scale landscape exploitation. The largest amount of land where new woodlands might be planted in the next decades lies on the upland fringes where sheep farming on improved pasture is heavily subsidised. If the UK is to meet its planting targets (and it is currently nowhere near meeting them), some accommodation will have to be made: nature is NOT a zero-sum game. The best place to store carbon is in woodland soil – a stable, sustainable and productive biome which is also rich in the sort of subsoil invertebrates and fungal networks which, unlike birds, do not have royal societies to protect and lobby for them. Add the community and educational benefits of woodlands – the working parts of our landscape that can actual involve real people in their establishment, management and productivity – and the positives might look weightier than the negatives. Since no golden plover has been spotted on the field in question, the plovers seem to exist more in Schrodinger’s black box than they do in the real world. The Forestry Commission says in its judgement that it cannot take any of these social or natural benefits into account, even though its own opinion is that the scale of the threat to existing fauna is very small.

What of mitigations? This is as much about the wildlife regarded as socially-acceptable or attractive (I am talking about beauty parades on Countryfile calendars) as it is about the balance of nature in a human-made landscape. As it happens, the grouse moor where these birds breed in the spring is one of the most lucrative game shoots in England. Those moors exist for shooting birds, and they are managed by very active game-keeping which involves shooting or legally trapping foxes, crows, stoats and anything else that might eat eggs or young birds. In other words, the waders survive because their enemies are killed. When I proposed that we could apply the same level of predator control to the new scheme as they practice on the adjacent moor, Natural England said, to begin with, that they didn’t believe me; that I could not guarantee the level or longevity of that control. I offered to place a covenant on the land ensuring it (and I should say that I like foxes and crows very much and they are very welcome in my other plantation; but needs must…). In their final judgment, Natural England say that they do not believe in predator control as a means of controlling predators in woodlands; better not to create the woodland (I kid you not – that is actually what it says).

And what of the future for the land? Natural England’s case officer told me that in his experience most landowners faced with defeat would just sell the land and it would go back to being sheep pasture (never mind the pros and cons of that ecological desert). Since that isn’t going to happen (my motives are not really very complex; I just want to create something a little bit magical and I will not sell the land), the future for the plot is that it will revert to scrub, then woodland (slowly, although I’ll give it a helping hand insofar as I legally can) – but with no control over predators, no buffer zone and none of the other mitigations that I had proposed. Result: no benefit for the plovers and curlews (and probably not much harm, either – their numbers fluctuate annually for all sorts of reasons, and we would only have been adding less than half a percent of woodland to what exists in the surrounding 1km square); and, in the end, nature allowed to find its own equilibrium. But it also means no viable public access or community education projects, because the application was ultimately aimed at securing a woodland creation grant that would help to pay for it all.

In the end, we are left with choices that might be political; or aesthetic; or based on some sort of point-scoring, where the interests of Schrodinger’s plovers are weighed against all other factors, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Since this is, ultimately, a political decision, that is where the fate of this small plot of Pennine land will be decided: I have appealed the decision to the Under Secretary of State in DEFRA (since September this year, Trudy Harrison MP). If, reading this, you have strong opinions about the scheme or its rejection, by all means write to her and have your fourpennyworth. The Environmental Statement that accompanied our application was open to public consultation, and is free to view below.

What is not (well, it is now) on public record is that when the Forestry Commission’s case officer visited South Field, back in the autumn of 2021 to explain what was so wrong about the scheme, he likened himself to a police officer going into a public park at night, with a torch, checking to see that no woman was being raped. I am being careful, very careful, to repeat exactly what he said (there were witnesses). The Forestry Commission’s other officers involved in the case told me ages ago to drop my application ‘for my own good’.

They were right; it has done me no good. On the other hand, if I don’t stand up for the trees, and the local community, and the bugs and birds and flowers (and hopefully foxes and crows) who are welcome to enjoy my small plot as it becomes woodland one way or the other – who will?

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