To stand any chance of halting biodiversity loss in the UK we have to tackle the root causes, one of which is habitat loss.
Woodland birds, those that are woodland specialists rather than generalist species, have declined by 46% in the UK since 1970 according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Despite tabloid headlines claiming outrage at the destruction of rainforests thousands of miles away, we need to look closer to home before we claim the moral high ground. Together with our ancestors, the British have been deforesting the UK since Man colonised these islands in the wake of the last Ice Age. Today, the UK is one of the least wooded regions in Europe with just 13% cover, of which just 2.4% is classified as ancient woodland.
Turn back the clock to the 1930s and the UK was significantly more wooded and woodland had a degree of security because renewable woodland products had economic value – woods were more valuable as working woodland than clear-felled. But things changed after WWII and by the 1980s British landowners had destroyed 45% of the ancient woodland recorded in the 1930s. This startling realisation prompted the Nature Conservancy Council to launch a survey and inventory of remaining sites. 50 years on it is hard to be anything other than cynical about the inventory’s value because today we are still destroying ancient woodland in the name of ‘progress’. A stark reminder of this is the 108 sites of ancient woodland that will be destroyed or damaged as a result of the HS2 railway line that few people appear to want and even fewer will be able to afford to use.
‘Why is it so easy to remove trees?’ The answer is, because it has been made easy by the body that oversees our woodlands, The Forestry Commission, the umbrella term for the devolved bodies that operate in each of the four regions of the UK. The remit for the body that oversee England states: ‘Forestry Commission England is the government department responsible for protecting, improving and expanding England’s woodlands and increasing their value for people, nature and the economy.’
So what are the consequences of just cutting down trees and ignoring the flawed framework that legitimises woodland destruction? In effect, a slap on the wrist at most. Just last year a property developer was fined £120,000 for ordering the removal of 70 protected trees including a 176 year old redwood. A £120,000 fine might sound like a lot but the clearance of the trees made way for the construction of 80 homes; Plot 70 is now listed for sale at £580,000. In February this year it has been claimed that Wiltshire Council felled trees with nesting birds in them, and similar claims have been made against HS2 just a few weeks ago.
In an effort to understand the weakness of the system we have reviewed the guidance for tree felling licence applications for England. Several sections of text have jumped out and fall short of their stated remit to ‘protect, improve and expand’ woodland, specifically in their objective to increase their value for nature.
Forestry Commission guidelines state: ‘Wildlife law can be complex and, although it is not always illegal to fell during the bird nesting season or when protected species are present, precautions must be taken by law.’ Actually, it is always illegal to fell a tree that harbours nesting birds and/or protected species and to undertake forestry work that will harm ground-nesting species. This is covered under the Birds and Habitats Directive which as BirdLife states: ‘all naturally occurring wild bird species, their eggs, nests and habitats are strictly protected under the Birds Directive from killing, capturing and taking.’ That seems fairly clear. And under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 all birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law and it is thus an offence, with certain exceptions to ‘Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.’ Natural England defines the Bird Nesting Season as being from February until August and they require tree work to be undertaken outside the breeding season. Given that is inconceivable that any English woodland would not harbour breeding birds of one kind or another, what reason can there possibly be (other than to satisfy commercial interests) to permit any tree work during those prescribed months?
Forestry Commission guidelines continue: ‘You must make sure that the work is planned to ensure protected species are not intentionally harmed or killed.’ This appears to contradict the statement above within the same document but notice the cop-out: ‘not intentionally harmed’, which suggests that claiming ‘I didn’t mean it guv’ is an acceptable argument for defence.
Another section states: ‘…if you identify protected species when carrying out forestry operations – for example, a population of bats being directly affected by your tree felling activity – you must stop work immediately.’ Given that bats have roosted in trees for millennia, and it’s common knowledge that they do so, why doesn’t the Forestry Commission insist on bat surveys prior to issuing a felling licence? We wonder how many businesses, with an eye on the profit and loss statement, would be willing to cease works, for which they already have a felling licence, in the event of identifying a bat roost or a protected bird’s nest? Not many.
Let’s compare and contrast the application process for housing and forestry destruction. In the housing domain, Planning Applications have to be posted and advertised, and neighbours and commentators given the chance to comment and raise objections. No such process exists with Felling Licences. The Felling Licence online application form appears to have no provision for wildlife at all. The guide for applying, which has screen shots to help explain the process, list 13 steps to apply for a felling licence. Wildlife is not mentioned once and there is certainly no request for an ecological survey report. If woodland were potentially impacted by a housing planning application, at the very least an Ecological Assessment would be required as part of a submission that would be vetted by the council’s biodiversity officer. So why is that a development next to a woodland would require an expert opinion of what was in the woodland but actually destroying the woodland requires no evidence of expert opinion?
Then there’s the bigger picture: Global Warming and the Government’s aspiration to plant more trees and save the planet. Flawed though the logic may be, and peppered with commercial self-interest, let’s see how it squares with the Forestry Commission’s view. Their guidelines state: ‘The government has a general policy against deforestation – the permanent removal of trees or woodland without replanting or regeneration. This policy is principally to ensure that woodland cover and timber supply are safeguarded for future generations.’ If the Government has a general policy against deforestation why is it so easy to be granted a licence? And good to see that the principal rationale for tree cover is to provide future generations with a supply of timber; nothing about carbon sequestration or wildlife habitat.
Perhaps the focus on finance rather than wildlife has something to do with the leadership of the organisation? We don’t know much about Mr Ian Gambles the CEO of the Forestry Commission other than what is published on their website, which describes him as: ‘previously Director of National Infrastructure at the Planning Inspectorate, has experience from both the public and private sectors, including HM Treasury and as a management consultant.’ He’s also ‘a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants’. We wouldn’t wish to jump to any conclusions but do these sound like the right credentials for someone that oversees the health of a crucial wildlife habitat and carbon store? Perhaps the group of people who provide the governance (the commissioners) have the skills and knowledge to speak on behalf of wildlife? Well not according to the list that is published. Sport, farming and commercial forestry interests are represented but wildlife isn’t.
We think the tree felling licence process should be challenged and tighter measures put in place to ensure that crucial wildlife habitat receives the protection it deserves and actually already has in law.
Now seems the perfect time to make the challenge given that we have a government that has consistently stated they want ‘to make ours the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it.’ Theresa May 2018
We write this just as construction projects across most of the country have ceased in response to Covid-19. March would have probably been the latest month that you would hope that tree and vegetation removal would take place on a construction site before nesting and migrating birds took occupation for the spring.
However, with work paused we can’t help but wonder if these clearance works will resume again in the next couple of months – because of course, once a felling licence has been granted it cannot be revoked.