I’ve been brewing for a rant about the destruction of woodland for a long time now, so here I go.
When I’m out working for the Woodland Trust, I meet people all the time who have no idea how poorly the UK compares to the rest of Europe – we have just over a third of Europe’s average percentage of woodland cover. UK = 13% Europe = 37%. And yes I know we’re a densely populated island, but that is not the sole reason for it. Ancient woodland (land that has been continuously wooded since 1600 in England, but very often much, much longer) makes up just 2% of the UK’s land area, but it had no protection under planning law until 2018. And even with that protection acres of it are still being cut down or permanently damaged for numerous projects, including HS2, right now. Just imagine that the proposed HS2 route meant demolishing Chatsworth House. Inconceivable right? We could have expected public outrage, legal protection for a listed building, a public enquiry, and ultimately a redesign of the HS2 route. Chatsworth House was built in the 1550s, and it is much younger than many of the ancient woodlands being destroyed for HS2, some of which have probably been there since medieval times or before. For things to be protected, we have to recognise their value, and woodlands and trees are generally not highly valued in this country, at least by those in authority. According to Julian Hoffman a golf course was valued more highly than any of the ancient woodlands affected by HS2. Can you tell how angry this makes me? Also, when I’ve been out working, I’ve met people who have defended these woods, who have camped out in protest, they are losing their local walks, their nature reserves and areas of natural beauty, and that makes me sad.
Ancient woodland is a rare habitat in the UK, but why is it special? We’re all aware that large areas of the Amazon rainforest are disappearing daily to logging, most people I meet are outraged by this, they tell me that we need the Amazon forest, it’s the lungs of the world. They tell me that we are losing species which we haven’t even identified yet. And they’re right. The Amazon forest is the most biodiverse habitat in the world, and we have failed to protect it from human destruction. The most biodiverse habitat in the UK is our ancient woodland – the 2% which remains, but is decreasing all the time. We have failed to protect it, in exactly the same way as the Amazon rainforest, from human destruction. Ancient woodland supports species that have adapted to living in it over hundreds and thousands of years. We can plant new woodlands, but as with the Amazon, we will lose all those species that can’t adapt to a new habitat fast enough.
Are you beginning to understand why I feel like ranting? Well here is the killer blow. You know that I said ancient woodland makes up just 2% of the UK’s land area? Well technically that’s true, but only half of that is the native deciduous woodland with bluebells and wild garlic that I expect you’re picturing. The other half is replanted ancient woodland, possibly with native trees, but more likely planted with non-natives such as larch, spruce, pine etc. They retain the designation of Ancient Woodland for being continuously wooded since 1600, even if the conifers reduce light levels so much that it’s impossible for the bluebells to flower, and the habitat can’t sustain specialist ancient woodland species. These plantations can be restored with native species of trees, the bluebells may well flower again, but it can’t be done quickly – I have spoken to people who do this for the Woodland Trust, and I was amazed how slowly they have to do it, in order to protect what remains of the ancient woodland ecosystem.
So this is the current situation. We have a vanishingly small amount of our most biodiverse habitat left, this has contributed to 10% of our native wildlife being critically endangered, and we continue to cut down ancient woodland at a pace, whilst simultaneously trumpeting the case for tree planting on a large scale to reduce the effects of climate change. On the one hand I’m furious, and on the other hand I feel so fortunate to have my own little piece of that 1%, but how much longer can its isolated populations of specialist species flourish in the face of external threats?
Next time someone tries to defend cutting down a piece of ancient woodland to you, remember how little we have left, how important it is to our native wildlife, and maybe ask them if they’d be just as relaxed about demolishing Hampton Court Palace, or a medieval cathedral – like Salisbury for instance.
Now I’ve had my rant, I shall go back to concentrating on doing what I can at a local level for trees and woods, in a county that is one of the least wooded in the country
If you want to read a far better written piece about the irreplaceable nature of the woods being cut down for HS2 this is an excellent blog post by Julian Hoffman, author of Irreplaceable; the Fight to Save our Wild Places