23 Jan 2011

Forest campaigners fear government sale

As the government prepares to publish its plans to sell off some of England’s forests, it insists ancient woodland will be protected. Channel 4 News’ Julian Rush finds campaigners are not convinced.

The government will this week publish its plans to sell off some of England’s oldest and most iconic forests. The Coalition has already started the sale in some areas and says it intends to sell a “significant proportion” of the public woodland which is valued at £700m.

The Forestry Commission currently looks after England’s publicly owned woodland – including the New Forest and ancient woodland like the Forest of Dean and parts of Sherwood Forest.

It is the sale of such ancient woodland which is most controversial – campaigners say that if privatised, it will not be properly protected and what is left of the country’s ancient woodland could die out.

The test, say woodland charities, is in England’s planted ancient woodlands – places where the Forestry Commission planted conifers among the old trees after the First World War.

Conifers that are now reaching maturity.

England's forests are under threat, say campaigners, as the government prepares to sell off land (Image: Getty)

We have a unique opportunity, they say: take out the conifers slowly and carefully, as the Woodland Trust are doing in Northfields Wood in Suffolk, to allow the surrounding ancient woods to grow back with all its biodiversity.

Or clear-fell for a quick profit and lose our ancient woods forever.

High profile names such as Annie Lennox and Dame Judi Dench have joined a growing list of celebrities opposing the plans.
Almost 90 prominent figures signed a letter in The Sunday Telegraph today claiming that such a sale would be “misjudged and short-sighted”.

The long list of concerned celebrities, politicians, media figures and others includes artist Tracey Emin, model Lily Cole, chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, novelist Julian Barnes, actress Gillian Anderson, broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell, actor Richard E Grant and designer Dame Vivienne Westwood.

They highlight the protection issue as well as concerns over public access to the land once it is sold off. Both issues the government has insisted will not be affected.

The Defra minister Jim Paice has told MPs he won’t compromise the protection of the most valuable forests and he’ll preserve public benefit like walkers’ rights of access.

But the protest groups fear loopholes on access rights, and they’re suspicious of the growing clamour from energy companies for land to grow biofuel crops.

Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by an environmental campaign group suggests three quarters of the public are against the proposals.

The government has already said it wants to sell 15 per cent of that by 2015 – and we will find out what it plans for the remaining 85 per cent when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) publishes its consultation this week.