The UK’s ancient woodland is in crisis – and Theresa May’s greenwash can’t hide it

A deer in the woods. Image: Getty.

Last week I paid £15 to dedicate a tree to my friend’s new baby, via The Woodland Trust website. His arrival in this chaotic world made me think of all the ways I wished it was more perfect for him: less polluted, more certain to be full of “dappled things”; more caring.

After browsing the trust's different options, I settled on a tree in a new native forest being planted at Heartwood near London. Photos of the site suggest that the plastic-bound saplings are still very much in their infancy but I liked the idea of them growing old as he does. As the Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.”

This put me in a receptive mood to hear that Theresa May is thinking along similar lines. On Sunday, in a prelude to this week's historic release of the “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, she announced that the government will help create a new “Northern Forest”; a “vast ribbon of woodland” that will stretch from coast to coast between the cities of Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

This is a big win for forestry campaigners. The Woodland Trust and The Community Forests Trust have carefully developed the project together, and hope it will deliver major benefits – from flood reduction to increased biodiversity.

According to the director of the Mersey Forest Trust, Paul Nolan, the new £5.7m of Defra funding is a vital first step towards meeting the scheme’s full, £500m, target. “It’s a good start and we’ve got 25 years to make the case for further money and support,” he told the New Statesman.

Yet while children still grow up with tales steeped in trees, Britain's real-world woods - our living, breathing capsules of sylvan time - are in crisis.

Just 2 per cent of the UK has tree-cover dating to 1600 or earlier and the Woodland Trust believes the overall decline to be so bad that England is entering a state of “deforestation”. At Kew Gardens, researchers are already resorting to preserving endangered species in seed banks.

This alarming situation contains a warning about the wider battle currently waging between environmentalists and planners. It raises questions about what trees, and nature more widely, is worth and whether its value - in the most fecund sense of that word - can ever be fully measured at all.

It is a concern that commentators and NGOs have raised in the last few days, cautioning that any new tree planting must not be wielded as a form of compensation for (or a distraction from) the trees that are being lost to the government’s development plans.


“It’s a supreme irony that the current routing of HS2 threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham. We need new forests and ancient woodlands - not one or the other,” said Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Zylva in a statement on Sunday.

For James Cooper of the Woodland Trust the UK’s ancient forests should be considered “irreplaceable” - like the Cathedrals that they are so often compared to, and protected with the same level of care.

But unlike the protections provided for our built heritage, the government’s present National Planning Policy Framework allows developers to destroy ancient trees as long as they can demonstrate “sufficient need”.

As long as this loophole remains in place, the next best option is to ensure that any lost woodland is replaced with the highest possible ratio of new planting. For HS2, Natural England has supported a proposed ratio of 30:1 - but Cooper believes that only a 5:1 ratio is being delivered at present (though says this will have nothing to do with the proposed new Northern Forest).

Fracking too is a concern. Just this week, the West Sussex County Council approved fracking firm Cuadrilla’s application to test the flow of oil at Balcombe. Friends of the Earth has also revealed that, in Sherwood Forest, Ineos has sought and received permission for seismic surveys, despite public assurances to the contrary.

It is in this wider context that we should listen to May and Michael Gove announce their (overdue) “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, which it is hoped will suggest new solutions for everything from soil decline, to plastic pollution, to climate change.

One leafy shadow already cast, earlier this week, is the fact the government backtracked on advice for ancient woodland protection, changing a section of the “Standing Advice” it issues to developers. Whereas it had previously advised a 50m “buffer zone” as an appropriate mitigation measure around ancient or veteran trees, it now only advises a minimum of 15m.

Another is that organisations like the Woodland Trust still, despite repeated lobbying, have no reliable data on the condition of the UK’s ancient woods. Those datasets which do exist are “not fully maintained”, and local planning decisions are not centrally updated, the Trust says.

Without greater clarity, ambition and tools to measure progress, the government risks missing the woods for the trees on its environmental policy – and not just for forests.

India Bourke is editorial assistant and environment correspondent at the New Statesman, where this article first appeared.

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How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.