One of life’s simple pleasures that is denied me at the moment is a trip to the pub. This has been the case since the start of this year, when I decided that I should be considerate to the poor souls who will have to bear my coffin, whenever the time comes for that, and shed some blubber – proof that this was a long-overdue decision can be found in the photograph illustrating my blog Brief encounter (posted 22 Apr 2013).
A few days back I breached my self-imposed exile from licensed premises, but only in the line of duty you will appreciate. The occasion was a gig performed by local singer-songwriter Jackie James and some of her friends in a hostelry in Leamington. The excuse that allowed me to attend the gig with a clear conscience – well almost a clear conscience – was that Jackie had kindly dedicated the evening to our action group, and had organised a raffle in aid of our funds. The raffle did very well for us, I am pleased to report; people always seem to be at their most generous when relaxing at the pub, which is something that the Salvation Army latched on to many years ago.
Apart from suffering the frustration of spending all evening sipping a single point of beer, the product of a certain brewery in Southwold that is high on my list of favourites, I really enjoyed the evening, and the music was first-rate. Jackie, in particular, is a very talented music maker, and one of the songs that she performed, although originally recorded in 1970, is very pertinent to the situation that I find myself facing with HS2. That song is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.
I am sure that anyone who was a student in my era will be familiar with this song, and Wikipedia informs me that it has been “covered” fairly regularly since then, so there is a chance that it may also be familiar to today’s younger audiences. Certainly, the environmentally-concerned lyrics – Joni sings about when “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – are, sadly, still all too relevant today, despite all the tripe about “the greenest government ever” and David Cameron being photographed on a dog sled at a time when we were blissfully ignorant about his real motivation and even prepared, perhaps, to believe him.
Indeed, the very next morning I heard on the news that the Woodland Trust was reporting “the largest threat to a single ancient woodland site in England that the [Trust] has seen in its 42-year history”. According to the Trust, this threat stands to condemn 50 ha – that’s more than three times the size of London Zoo – of ancient woodland near Tamworth in Staffordshire to becoming a quarry for the extraction of 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel.
This latest example may be the “largest” threat to ancient woodland, but it is only one of many; the Woodland Trust advises that there are currently more than 400 ancient woods threatened across the UK and that, over the past decade, it has contested the cases of more than 1,000 woods under threat of development.
The Tamworth proposal is currently only an application by LaFarge Tarmac, and you might think that the chances of it actually happening are slim; surely, as the last resort, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will call it in and deny the application. However, the Woodland Trust announcement includes a note that a similar application involving 32 ha of ancient woodland near Maidstone was approved by Eric Pickles in 2013, so I think that we should regard the Tamworth application as a very real threat.
The Woodland Trust has estimated that the blanket woodland coverage of lowland UK that was established following the end of the ice ages amounted to as much as 90% of the total UK land area. By the time that the Domesday Book was being compiled this was down to an estimated 15%, and currently stands at a mere 2% of the total UK land area. However, the Natural England assessment is that these remnants still amount, in total, to around 200,000 ha of ancient semi-natural woodland in England alone, so why do we need to worry about the fate of the odd 50 ha?
The answer is that our ancient woodland is suffering death by a thousand cuts. In my blog Leaving something for the grandchildren (posted 17 Mar 2013), I reported Woodland Trust claims that a total of 22,770 acres (9,214 ha) of ancient woodland was under risk at that time, and this is not an insignificant portion of our total reserve. And the damage is far worse than the loss of woodland area alone; when it comes to the ecological value of ancient woodland, size really does matter. In an informative review that the Woodland Trust published at the turn of the millennium, the problems that arise from the fragmentation of woodland, resulting from the felling of parts of larger woods, are discussed (see page 9).
The Trust’s review characterises the 20th century as “a difficult one for the UK’s ancient woodland”, chiefly due, under Forestry Commission policy, to the wholesale creation of plantations on ancient woodland sites that reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s – my researches revealed the coined word “coniferisation” (a word that I rather like, in a warped sort of way) to describe this now generally deprecated practice. The document reports that “since the 1930s, more than 38 per cent of ancient woodland in England and Wales has been felled and converted to plantations and a further eight per cent cleared for agriculture”.
In contrast, the Trust’s review sees the 1990s as “a change for the better”, but nevertheless warns that “our surviving ancient woods are still under threat”. Certainly, I think that we have seen off the menace of further coniferisation, but that has been replaced by an increasing risk from development projects, of which HS2 is, of course, only one example. I think that we should view the Trust’s current ringing of an alarm bell as a warning that we might be slipping back to the old ways of wholesale destruction.
As Joni Mitchell’s song says, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
PS: I can’t resist bringing to your attention an environmental metaphor, of the type that we have become familiar with from the Environmental Statement, trotted out to the Commons HS2 Select Committee by the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, and to be found in the (uncorrected) transcript for the morning of Wednesday 22 October 2014:
- [MR MOULD QC (DfT):] …in order to carry out the earthworks, it’s necessary to impinge into a section of Roundhill Wood.
- SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Sorry, ‘impinge’ means destroy.
- MR MOULD QC (DfT): [in a jocular fashion] Yes, cut down, but we know what we mean.
Oh yes Mr Mould, we know what you mean, and so, it appears, does Sir Peter.