So, the Con-Dems have announced that they are going to sell the forests they ‘own’* (through the Forestry Commission) to private, I assume mostly profit-making, companies. To get you up to speed:
- Guardian article by John Vidal: ‘UK government confirms forest sell-off plans‘
- The Government’s letter to MPs
- EcoEarth’s ‘Action Alert’, urging readers to ‘Stop UK Government’s Grand Forest Sell-off, Urge Protection and Restoration for the People’s Old Forests‘
Info that stood out to me from the above:
1) – 72% of UK woodland is already in private ownership – the FC only ‘own’ 18%.
2) – Total UK woodland cover has gotten more extensive over the last century – from 4% in 1919 to 12% currently. This compares to 33% (EcoEarth ibid.) – 44% (Woodland Trust) for the European average†. However, we still have to ask what kind of woodland…
[…] only a small proportion of [the UK landscape’s 12% woodland cover], around 40 per cent, is native woodland.
Ancient woodland, land which has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD and is our closest link with the original wildwood, now covers only 2 per cent* of the UK’s land area.
(*This varies from 4.2 per cent in Scotland to 3.2 per cent in Wales, 2.45 per cent in England and less than 0.1 per cent in Northern Ireland.)
Sadly, nearly 50 per cent of the ancient woodland that survived until the 1930s has since been lost or damaged by agriculture, development or planting by non-native conifers for commercial forestry. (Woodland Trust, ‘Why has woodland in the UK declined?’ – ibid.)
Further, the 2% of ancient woodland land area splits into the categories of ‘Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland’ (ASNW) which ‘is composed of native tree species that have not obviously been planted’ and ‘Planted Ancient Woodland Sites’ (PAWS) – ‘ancient woods in which the former tree cover has been replaced, often with non-native trees’ (Wikipedia). So it isn’t clear how much – if any – woodland has survived the onslaught of the agricultural/industrial culture in this country over the last 6,000 years; how much of it in any way resembles its previous form.
3) – 75% of wood used (‘consumed’) in the UK is imported from abroad.
On 1) I suppose the issue is that, in theory, the public can exercise rights of access on government-owned land, whereas doing so on private land would involve jumping a few fences and operating outside the law (policemen backing up property ‘rights’ with force). I’m waiting to hear back from the FC about what percentage of their land is actually open to the public. This snippet suggests not all of it, but that there might at least be the possibility of some legal redress:
The commission, says Lees [‘recreation and public affairs manager’ for the FC in SW England], now aims to make as much of its woodland accessible to the public as possible. In fact, it is obliged to; the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 ensures the public can walk freely on mapped areas. (link)
(Of course, if you consider the law unjust or that those dictating its terms have no legitimacy, then you can declare it irrelevant and go about your business as you please. However, I would advise you to do so either invisibly or in numbers substantial enough to ward off attacks from dedicated enforcers…‡)
2) feels like waters receding before a tidal wave, explained by 3) – as I guessed before timber companies currently find it more economical to operate abroad for the usual reasons of lax regulations, greater abundance of exploitable ‘resources’, and the cheap energy (oil) which allows them to ship their products (the carcasses of trees) to any receptive market, no matter how far away. Another Guardian article informs us that ‘[b]oth the Thatcher and Major governments tried to privatise the Forestry Commission in the 1980s and 1990s but failed following intense pressure from conservation groups and lack of interest by industry’ – funny how the successes of environmentalists always seem to coincide with industry disinterest in this way… How long are things going to stay that way though? The article mentions that:
[…]land has become more valuable, not just for timber but for providing “environmental services” such as flood control, climate change measures and amenity.
In England the commission is subsidised by £30m a year, but generates an additional £63m a year in income. A government economic study released earlier this year calculated that it provides £2,100 in value per hectare per year if benefits such as erosion protection, pollution absorption, carbon sequestration, health provision are included. (ibid.)
… and we have similar barf-inducement from the RSPB spokesman talking about ‘our natural capital’ – all of which views the environment as a subsidiary of the capitalist economy (it’s the other way round), and assumes that the best way to preserve something is to put a price tag on it. For the moment the industrialists aren’t acting too impressed:
Prices today reflect a very different market, says Clegg [‘senior partner at John Clegg that handles the sale of about two-thirds of the woods sold in the UK each year’]: “High-quality broadleaf woodland is the most valuable. A small, southern England wood costs about £10,000 an acre. Whereas, in Northumberland, a large commercial forest larger than 100 acres might expect to fetch £1,750-£3,000 an acre. Consider that farmland is currently worth £4,000-£6,000 an acre and many might see planting trees as a way to devalue your land, even with the subsidies available. It’s very hard work to make a forest commercially viable. And, perversely, it’s a real struggle to get planning permission to plant a new forest.
“Back in the 1980s when the tax relief was available, we had about 23,000 acres being planted a year. So the idea – as has been suggested this week – that someone will want to buy, say, the New Forest for commercial reasons just isn’t viable. It’s just not a commercial proposition. And even the major overseas buyers are not going to be interested, because our forests are just too small for them to consider. The biggest forests that typically come on the market today are worth no more than £500,000. Even talk of their future value as ‘carbon sinks’ [forests commercially maintained due to their tradable worth as absorbers of carbon dioxide] is hugely overrated. There is lots of talk at the moment about the ‘carbon rights’ of forests, but it is still a really undefined market in this country. I can’t think of a sale yet where we’ve put a value on the carbon rights.” (ibid.)
… but give it a few years and they might be talking differently, especially if, by then, the land is already out of notional public ownership, and higher import prices start to make ‘indigenous resources’ look more attractive…
Meanwhile, I read in last week’s SchNEWS an example of what happens to Our Precious Ancient Woodland even before the proposed sell-off:
In 2009, West Sussex County Council granted permission to Northern Petroleum to test drill for oil in the ancient woodland at Markwells Wood, near Chichester (see SchNEWS 631).
The firm reckons it has uncovered a stash of between 35 and 61 million barrels of joy beneath the wood and has now decided to start bringing in heavy equipment and begin drilling.
The firm’s boss announced: “The commercial case for drilling Markwells Wood is compelling when the price level of oil is above $80 per barrel.” i.e. At $80 a pop that’s some haul with a street value in the billions. Yee-haw!
My rule: Ignore what they say; look at what they do and the priorities become clear. Some more media reports:
- ‘Rush for oil reaches Britain’s fields‘ – Katie Hunt, Business Reporter, BBC News
- ‘Search for the South East’s oil‘ – Peter Sherlock, BBC News
- ‘The South(fork) Downs: Outrage as oil barons bid to drill in Sussex beauty spot‘ – Sam Greenhill, The Daily Mail
- ‘Anger over South Downs oil rig‘ – Paul Eccleston, The Telegraph
And more take-away info:
1) Northern Petroleum plan to fell 1 hectare (approx. 2.5 acres) of PAWS woodland in an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and ‘England’s newest National Park’ – the South Downs.
2) Onshore drilling in the UK is becoming more ‘commercially viable’ (ie: attractively profitable) since North Sea oil passed its peak in 2009 and imports are getting more expensive. Only 1.5% of the 1.6 million barrels of oil extracted every day from UK territory comes from onshore wells, but 97 new licences for oil/gas exploration were granted in 2008, compared to just 8 five years previously.
3) The council doesn’t even own the land, and, unless there are undisclosed kickbacks (Daily Mail commenter ‘Pete, UK’ has a ‘good friend who works for a council planning department’ who says that ‘back handers are rife in the planning process’ – good enough for me😉 ), the profits get split 50:50 between the oil company and the central government treasury, leaving locals with the questionable benefits of temporary, transient ‘jobs in the haulage and service maintenance sector’ (the best NP could come up with).
I followed the link in the second BBC article to the Chichester District Council Planning Commitee Report of May ’08 (PDF) which declares a ‘clear and overriding need for oil exploration’, backing this up with referrals to the ‘National Minerals Policy’ and their own ‘Development Plan Policies’ (1 – ‘Promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond’, 2 – ‘Maximise the potential of the UK’s conventional oil and gas reserves in an environmentally acceptable manner’ and 3 – ‘Maintain the reliability of energy supplies’) before quoting this piss-weak justification repeatedly in the subsequent text, as if they’ve made an adequate case.
See if you can make sense of this paragraph:
The loss of ancient woodland should not be permitted unless the need for, and benefits of the development in that location outweigh the loss of the woodland habitat also taking into account the habitat/amenity value of that woodland. The need for the development is clear. [Because we say so.] The benefits of the development in this location are two fold; achieving acceptable noise levels at sensitive receptors and excellent natural screening. Although there is a clear desire to retain ancient woodland it is considered that, given the visual/amenity benefits of siting the development therein, measures proposed to retain ancient features where possible, restoration to structured woodland, substantial compensatory woodland/hedgerow planting, and the relatively limited quality of the woodland, its loss is acceptable. (p.3)
Have they really decided to cut down an ancient woodland because it is surrounded by trees?? Also, ‘its loss is acceptable’ – disturbing, huh? Acceptable to you, maybe…
Point 8.3 really scrapes the barrel:
Exploration wells are an invaluable source of data on the sub-surface geological structure of Britain and greatly extend our knowledge of the nation’s resources.
A knowledge which will be used … to extract more resources!
Neither Natural England or the Environment Agency raised any objections to these plans, only ‘conditions’ about groundwater pollution (4.8), ‘mitigation measures’ for ‘badger protection, reptile relocation and bat boxes’ (11.6) and soil and subsoil being ‘permanently retained on site and used in restoration’ (Appendix 1.18). Objections to the loss of ancient woodland were raised by the Woodland Trust (4.20), the South Downs Joint Committee (4.22) and the West Sussex County Council ‘Landscape’ (who also raised concerns about ‘setting a precedent’ – 4.12) and ‘Ecology’ (4.14) consultees, but it’s not clear if they plan to do anything about it after having their views noted and ignored. Like Jeff Buckley sang: ‘We know you’re useless like cops at the scene of the crime’. Practically the first thing you learn about ancient woodland is that it takes centuries to mature, and you can’t kill the trees, scoop out the soil and expect it to grow back the way it was before.
I find it all very depressing. The word ‘need’ or ‘needs’ comes up 46 times in the 32-page document, most of which instances refer at base to the ‘need’ of the agrarian/industrial/capitalist/civilised economy to bleed the Earth dry of all materials useful for its project of neverending expansion. You could more honestly substitute the word with ‘want(s)’, ‘desire(s)’ or ‘demand(s)’. I’m reminded of the husband’s traditional ‘need’ (in patriarchal societies) for sexual gratification, with or without his wife’s consent. Lianne at ‘We Left Marks’ points out that the estimated 35 million barrels of oil under Markwells Wood ‘would only last the country just over three weeks at our current rate of consumption’, and puts the news in the context of Peak Oil (crucial background which mainstream media still don’t provide), asking the multi-billion-dollar question:
Is it worth destroying a hectare of ancient woodland to get at? Well Northern Petroleum says it is. But I would question the long-term usefulness of energy companies (though admittedly their long-term logic tends to defer to short-term profitability) and government continuing to focus upon energy-intensive and harder-to-acquire sources, like tar sands or Iraq’s oil fields, when we could be getting ahead of the game.
‘Northern Petroleum says it is’ – quite. Do we** agree with them? Do we agree with the law which ‘allows exploration for valuable minerals such as oil even in national parks if the potential benefits outweigh the destruction caused’ (Daily Mail, ibid.) – a totally subjective judgement? I for one don’t buy the argument that ‘they’re just giving us what we want’; I think the Resource Extractors in effect force us into dependency on their products through the large scale of their operations, which rapidly inundate any alternatives. Refusal to buy the product (eg: trains, roads/cars, computers, mobile phones, and the raw materials from which these are built) becomes a tactic relegated to ‘eccentrics’ and ‘misanthropes’ on the margins of society, once the product is common enough to form a social ‘expectation’. And if it’s there, you may as well use it, right? Or, as George Monbiot put it: ‘if fossil fuels are extracted, they will be used’ – supply generates demand. His solution? ‘Leave [them] in the ground’.
The SchNEWS crew hope for ‘a Sussex rabble yet to make the whole project go a little less smoothly’ (ibid.), and that’s something I’d like to see too. However, to really ignite opposition I think we need better reasons than the ones given by conservationists. It comes back to the fundamental problem: we don’t depend on the forests for our survival. Therefore you can talk all you want about recreation, environmental ‘services’, mental health benefits, etc. – ultimately we’re farming people: our (not-so-)livelihoods come from cutting the trees down and planting rows of grain where they once stood. The ‘natural capitalists’ have a point in a way – our culture perceives value in terms of £££s, so if we see no value in the woods; if we prize the minerals underneath them more than the living communities on the surface, then they are doomed. It’s an old, sad story which Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (PDF):
Like most indigenous cultures, theirs [the ‘Gaelic speaking Celts”] developed through a long and close connection to land. The early Scots saw the lives of trees interlocked with their own. Whether innate or hard-won, they perfected a balanced, reciprocal relationship with forest, and took from it knowing their own health depended on its preservation. Highland historian James Hunter believes their environmental awareness was unique, predating any other in Europe by hundreds of years.
With the coming of the English and the Industrial Revolution everything changed. Sixteenth century England was hungry for wood. Empire building had depleted their forests, and as English woodsmen worked their way north, into the Highlands, they brought with them not only axes, but a profoundly different philosophy of nature—a view aggressively and breathtakingly anthropomorphic, a view that pictured everything on earth as intended for “the benefit and pleasure of man,” and untamed woodland as something to be feared, exploited, and, if necessary, erased. Literature of the time bristled with references to “degenerated nature,” the “deformed chaos” of woodland, and odes to trees far different from those of the Celts:
…haughty trees, that sour
The shaded grass, that weaken thorn-set mounds
And harbour villain crows…
The English saw, in the Highlands, not only land darkened with trees, but incivility. They called the native Highlanders “savages” (from the Latin root silva, meaning forest), and their trees “an excrescence of the earth, provided by God for the payment of debts.” Through the axe, the Highlands and its people were to be cleansed of chaos and shown the path to culture. (via)
We know the corporate/government priorities – what will we allow to shape ours? I’m going to direct my energies toward developing a co-dependent relationship (based variously on food, medicine, fuel & building materials, as well as space to walk, recuperate and ‘commune’) with the woods that remain. For your own good I suggest you do the same.
My comment on the ‘save our forests’ petition (which I signed, with a few misgivings):
Nobody can ‘own’ land, but some peoples’ delusions that they do can bring about more destruction than others’. Especially the psycopaths (whose ‘personhood’ the law recognises) we know as corporations.
The land gives us life. Kill it and we kill ourselves.
* – of course nobody can ‘own’ land. I remember this quote from Crocodile Dundee:
Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land.They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on. (link)
Also, another Jensenism: land ownership exists only as a collective delusion, backed up by force and/or the threat of force. Nobody really owns any land, just pieces of paper which we all agree means they do.
† – the FC’s ‘Forestry Facts & Figures 2010‘ (PDF) give 37% for the EU, which goes up to 45% if Russia’s 49% forest coverage is included (Table 14). They agree on the UK’s 12% overall coverage.
‡ **Update** – the FC’s David Edwards pointed me to these pages which refer to total accessible woodland in the UK, regardless of ownership (figures gathered by ‘Woods For People‘, a Woodland Trust project). The 73% ‘accessibility for recreation’ in the UK’s ‘total forest area’ (2005) from the first page appears to have been revised downwards to 49% (2004, 2009) because the results ‘were based in part on total land areas, rather than woodland areas’ (link – table, note 2). So about half, then. The second page provides an interesting footnote to the CRoW issue:
Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, most state woodland in England and Wales has been dedicated, but access to private woodland is permissive, not a legal right. In Scotland, the Land Reform Act 2003 gives a statutory right of responsible access, which in principle applies to almost all woodland […] even if there are considerable access difficulties in practice.
Role of the public forest estate
The public forest estate, owned and/or managed by the Forestry Commission in Great Britain and Forest Service in Northern Ireland, is crucially important for access across the UK. The Forestry Commission’s estate (by area) as a proportion of all accessible woodland is: England 66 per cent, Scotland 86 per cent and Wales 91 per cent. In Northern Ireland over 90 per cent of accessible woodland (by area) is Forest Service estate. Any proposed rationalisation of, or changes to, the status of the public forest estate could be potentially disastrous unless it is recognised that existing access should be protected, through binding agreements.
Role of the private woodland owner
Space for People demonstrates the deficit in accessible woods near to where people live and the extent to which this deficit can be offset by opening existing woods to the public. There is clearly a need to look more widely than publicly owned woods. Much of the available woodland is privately owned and is not currently permissively open to the public. If it were, the situation would be transformed. For example, if all privately owned woodland in England were accessible, the percentage of the population with access to a 20-hectare wood within 4 kilometres would increase from 55 per cent to 82 per cent. The corresponding figures for the other countries are: Wales 72 per cent to 98 per cent, Scotland 54 per cent to 95 per cent and Northern Ireland 50 per cent to 66 per cent. (p.22)
Phew! So I think I’m right in saying that if the FC sell off half of their land as proposed, and assuming all the private buyers put up fences and signs saying ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’, We The Public could lose legal access to between 33 (England) and 45.5 per cent (Wales) of the already minimal woodland coverage which landowners have granted us permission to visit.
** – sorry about all the ‘we’s – my inner propagandist wants to spread his views & attitudes!