Native woodland helps regulate air and water quality and aids flood management. Forests are a haven for important wildlife, rare flowers, our broadleaf trees, ferns, mosses and insects.
Before 1600, England was covered with forest and woodland, but by 1919, this country had lost 95% of its ‘ancient woodland’ – those forests which have been continuously wooded since 1600. Around 15% of England’s current woodland is found in Sites of Special Scientific interest and 70% is under private ownership. In Somerset, there is about 1,200 hectares of ‘ancient woodland’ owned by the Forestry Commission, none of which however is recorded as falling within the Wells constituency.
The Forestry Commission controls 18% of the remaining forest, but only 30% of this is broadleaf woodland. The other 70% of its ‘ancient woodland’ has been planted with conifers over the last 60 to 70 years. Although the Forestry Commission has started converting its conifer plantations on ‘ancient woodland’ back to native tree species and semi-natural woodland in recent years, progress is slow with fewer than 2,000 hectares recovered between 2002 and 2009.
The Government has proposed reforms to the Forestry Commission, notably to sell most, or all, of the Commission’s forests, and is about to launch a consultation on its proposals.
I have always been interested in protecting the environment, and view our ancient forests and woodland as part of our history and heritage. Any forest sell-off must not lead to free-for-all for building new roads, housing developments or golf courses and I want to be sure that the current level of public access to this land is protected or, in some cases, improved. For example, I would support an end to the Forestry Commission’s practice of charging horse-riders for access to some of its forests in England, which is unfair when cyclists and walkers may use the same paths for free. I would strongly support priority being given to environmental trusts and local communities to buy forests, so individuals, charities and parishes have a chance to play a bigger role in protecting their local environment. I would support the income from any forest sales being used to support woodland reclamation and creation and safeguarding biodiversity.
Lastly, I would mention that the Coalition has announced a new ‘Big Tree Plant’, whereby one million trees will be planted across England in the next four years. This is the first Government tree-planting campaign since the 1970s. The campaign will be carried out by the Government, the Forestry Commission and will bring together charities and conservation organisations, such as The Tree Council, Trees for Cities and the Woodland Trust.