Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish speaks up for the protection of the public forest estate on the day the independent panel publishes its findings.
The government’s consultation on the future management of the Public Forest Estate provoked anger and confusion in equal measure. It also showed a passion in the public for England’s forests and countryside rarely shown before. Such energy must be seized upon if we are to protect England’s ancient woodlands and reverse the decline in tree planting.
In the wake of the fierce public debate over the future of England’s forests the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, set up The Independent Forestry Panel, to be chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, and comprised of experts with wide ranging experience of the economic, social and environmental aspects of forestry.
Now at last now we can now have a long hard look at the Public Forest Estate and it is important that we take the public with us.
England has just over 10 percent woodland cover, an area roughly twice the size of Devon, compared to 44 percent for the whole of Europe, and well below the European average of 37 percent.
We are also seeing a decline in the number of trees being planted, with only 2,500 hectares planted in 2011 compared with the 18,000 hectares ten years ago despite the overwhelming desire of the public to see forests expanded and protected.
There must be an overall strategic vision for our forests that is sustainable and goes beyond the Public Forest Estate. There must recognition that supporting industries that rely on the forests, such as tourism and primary wood production, are not mutually exclusive to stewardship of our environment. They are instead mutually supporting and intimately linked.
There must also be a concerted effort to incentivise investment in our forests from landowners and charities to plant more woods. The challenge at the moment is that forestry can take 60 years to mature, and for the industry to see a return on its investment. I hope that the Panel can make realistic proposals on encouraging people to make long-term investments in our forests.
However, any grant or tax relief to encourage the planting of trees must measure the success or failure of forest creation over the medium and long term. Simply paying upfront for each hectare planted does not guarantee the creation of sustainable woodland. Forestry policy must reflect the lifespan of trees not political timetables.
There must also be coherent strategy to deal with tree diseases that threaten our forests and forestry industries. Diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen, have resulted in thousands of hectares of Japanese Larch to be cleared at great expense to landowners and to the ecosystem. It is a considerable threat to soft-wood industries that must be dealt with.
But most importantly, there must be adequate protection of both the ecosystem and the public’s access to our forests. We do not want a repeat of Labour’s fire-sale of the Public Forest Estate when they sold off 25,000 acres of forest, an area twice the size of Oxford, with absolutely no protection of public access to them.
It is in this context that we must examine how we manage forests and woodlands in this country and how we can both protect existing woodlands and create more wooded areas for the triple aims of public enjoyment, supporting the forestry industry and protecting the environment.
It is these three pillars that must guide the Government in transforming forest management in this country to meet the needs of both people and landscape.