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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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.