Can’t see the wood for the trees

In this blog I will continue my comments about the response to the public consultation on HS2 by the Forestry Commission England. By the way, I’m sorry about the title, but it was such an obvious one that I felt obliged to use it. It is also appropriate, since I’m afraid that this blog takes issue with the Forestry Commission in what appears to be a glaring inconsistency in its response.

In the earlier pages of its response the Forestry Commission England appears to buy in totally to the view of ancient woodland as irreplaceable. In paragraph 1.2 on page 3 of the response the following fairly unambiguous statement can be found:

The Forestry Commission’s advice is to emphasise the importance of ancient woodland. This is a habitat that cannot be recreated so every effort should be made to avoid direct landtake on ancient woodland as this cannot be mitigated.

As I said, the statement is fairly unambiguous. If you destroy ancient woodland you deprive future generations for ever of the benefits that such habitat conveys. Once you have done it, the loss cannot be made up in any way. This, by any definition, is an unsustainable activity.

Now those of you with long memories may recall that the Forestry Commission has first-hand experience of the despoiling of ancient woodland, as the protagonist. The Commission was set up in 1919 to create a national strategic timber reserve, following experience of timber shortages during the First World War. For most of the 20th century it saw its role as promoting the replanting of native woodlands with fast-growing tree species, mostly conifers and non-natives, for the commercial production of timber. Apparently, as much ancient woodland was “destroyed” in the 30-40 years after World War Two as in the previous four hundred.

Anyone who has walked in one of these “old style” Forestry Commission conifer plantations will know that they are dark, soulless and, apart from the serried ranks of forbidding conifers, almost devoid of plant and animal life.

Thankful the view in the 21st century has become more enlightened and non-native conifers have been felled in many woods and replaced by native species. Provided the woodland has not been cleared of trees and left unplanted for any period of time, it has, we are told, the capacity to recover.

Perhaps it is this experience of “restoring” woodland that has led the Forestry Commission to the apparent contradiction in its response to the public consultation. In the second section of its document, which deals with the “principles to be considered during planning of mitigation of the likely impacts”, it makes a sensible suggestion. It points to the promise by HS2 Ltd to plant some two million trees and comments that “it is unlikely that such linear, screening planting would fully compensate for the loss of ecosystem functionality that would be caused by the scheme”. The document goes on to say: “We therefore suggest that, in addition to the screening planting, further woodland is created”. This seems to be a fair point and a very good idea.

Of course, when you plant a field with saplings you do not get a wood; what you get is a field full of twigs. You need two more magic ingredients to get a wood: time and management. You also need to live long enough to see the results.

However, it is still a good idea.

But I did not quote the Forestry Commission sentence in full. What it says is:

We therefore suggest that, in addition to the screening planting, further woodland is created, on a scale and of a nature to fully compensate for the lost woodland area and character (and especially ancient woodland and accessible woodland).

So the field full of twigs that I mentioned above is going to “fully compensate” for an area of lost ancient woodland is it? That’s the ancient woodland that the Forestry Commission state “cannot be recreated” is it? That’s the damage that “cannot be mitigated” is it?

Given the management and time ingredients, it is possible to create a new area of passable woodland, but in no way will this resemble the characteristics of ancient woodland. Unless I am missing something, the Forestry Commission has completely taken leave of its senses.

One other suggestion that the Forestry Commission makes caused me to chuckle. This is that HS2 should employ the “judicious specification of sustainable timber” to contribute “to reducing the embedded carbon of the project”. Now I know that this is a serious, if somewhat impracticable, suggestion, but is has given me a totally new view of HS2 in my mind’s eye; to see what I mean visit here.

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