Forest sales could be for the best

Two weeks ago, the Government announced its long-awaited consultation on the future of the public-forest estate, currently managed by the Forestry Commission (FC). Roused by a host of Twittering celebrities, the publication was received with horror by many. The PR may not have been well managed, but, whatever the outcome of the consultation, it is right a debate takes place on why the State should own so much of England’s woodland.

The FC was formed in 1919 to provide a strategic reserve of timber for the nation following substantial fellings during the First World War. Vast areas of conifer were planted with this sole purpose. The needs of the nation are very different today, and it’s right to have a review and ask why the Government should be in the timber business and, indeed, be England’s biggest timber producer.

I am pleased to see Defra’s consultation document recognises that no two woodlands are the same, and that no single ownership is appropriate. It also makes it clear that public access and biodiversity will be protected. This is essential, and almost certain to happen.

The FC dedicated the vast majority of its estate as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and this is protected in perpetuity, so public access will be retained. Biodiversity protection is often better done by private woodland owners than the FC, and there are already protections in place to safeguard it.

On the whole, the FC has done a reasonable job managing the forest estate, learning the lessons of good woodland management and providing a constant supply of timber to mills when smaller private suppliers have been unable or unwilling to do so. Sadly, however, it has failed to become the exemplar of first-class silviculture it should have been and, 92 years after setting out to create a reserve of timber for the nation, the State has played its role. It is time to pass the baton to the private sector.

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For a variety of reasons, smaller outlying woods have, on the whole, not been managed well by the FC. Depending on their location, both individuals and communities should be given the chance to buy them. There are many precedents overseas for community ownership and the options should be explored. In an increasingly urban society, we should make it possible for people to enjoy the delights of woodland.

The so-called ‘heritage woods’ create greater difficulties. This term needs defining, but, in many cases, it refers to historic forests such as the Forest of Dean, the New Forest and Grizedale in the Lake District, areas that have a place in people’s hearts. Defra needs to take great care in their future. In them, public access, leisure, heritage and landscape outweigh the importance of timber production, and a new body may have to be created to manage these areas.

The idea driving the review was to raise money to help reduce the debt, but it may not prove a moneyspinner. Indeed, the cost to the Exchequer could increase, as forestry, a largely unprofitable industry, will still need support, without the FC’s income from timber production. The conditions imposed, and the fact that leases rather than freeholds are to be sold, would further reduce the proceeds.

The proposed sale of the public forests does not lessen the importance of the FC. Indeed, the move has the benefit of removing the conflict of interest, whereby the regulator regulates itself as our largest commercial producer-which surely can’t be right!

It will retain, and be more credible in, its role as regulator, and should focus on research, responding to outbreaks of tree pests and diseases, regulating felling and setting standards. Any sale of the estate must not be used as an excuse to axe the FC or merge it with another body, such as Natural England. It is essential, also, that the FC be staffed, as now, by foresters who understand woodland management.

The outcome of this consultation process is anyone’s guess, but I reiterate that the debate it has triggered is welcome. It is possible the outcome will be merely a measured reduction in State ownership of English woodlands. However, at least the public profile of our forestry and woodlands will have been raised.

William Worsley is president of the CLA and manages 900 acres of woodland on his family estate in North Yorkshire