Warning – this post contains subjects of a topical nature and even links to The Guardian, but no flashing lights. If you are not interested in access to our woodlands – then look away now!
I enjoy walking through woodland and I don’t think I am alone in this. There is something immensely calming about wandering through the trees, a sense of freedom I don’t get from walking along roads or in parks. It is similar to, but also very different from walking in open spaces such as mountain, moorland or on our fabulous coastal paths.
Our government is having a clearance sale. By an accident of history it has found in its attic an organisation called the Forestry Commission and the deeds to (ownership of) 18% of English and Welsh woodlands. You can almost sense the pound signs in their eyes in the rush to capitalise on these assets!
But why am I worried? We are being told that ownership is not an issue, regulators and regulations can ensure that private owners manage the woods to at least the same level and that access rights are maintained.That sounds fine doesn’t it?
If only it was that simple. As is so often the case these days, you can’t take a statement, particularly a political one, at face value. The simple truth is that access rights are not the same as the access policy operated by the Forestry Commission. Access rights don’t include bike and horse trails and maybe limited to rights of way only where the woodland has not been dedicated under the CRoW (Countryside and rights of way act). With private ownership may come fences, ‘Private’ signs and the ironically titled ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’.
Rather typically I can’t find the DEFRA news release, but you can read about it and a response here.
I can see ways in which the current access policy could be retained and even extended by transferring the woodlands to local or charity ownership. Policitians are hinting that they’d like to see this – but the problem that I see is simple. Money. Access policy is not compatible with selling to the highest bidder and this plan is all about raising money, not about improving the future of our woodlands.
How do I know this? Well recent experience with limited sales in the 1980’s and in the last few years have led to curtailment of access rights by private owners. Yes the FC have been quietly selling woods while we weren’t looking and Rigg Wood in Lakeland is a case in point. You can read about the consequences for using Rigg Wood here. Bear in mind that if this can happen in a National Park, then it could be a lot more serious around the corner from you.
You shouldn’t take my word for it. There are some very good articles on line which give food for thought. You can read these articles in the Guardian by John Vidal here and this week by Andy Wightman on the opportunity to put the woodland in the hands of the public. You’ll find plenty more once you start looking.
I think doing nothing is no longer an option. Access to land and the future of our woodlands are too important to leave to leave to the short term demands of politics, or to the vaguaries of a market and certainly not to the wealth of landowners. I don’t normally sign petitions and not ones from professional campaigners but in this case I don’t know how else to get the government to take notice. You can find the petition on the 38degress site or go via the SaveOurForest website.