Forestry Commission’s destruction of the environment in the cause of climate change mitigation

Tree planting is not a climate change mitigation panacea, as Miles King explains in his “A New Nature Blog” post. But the Forestry Commission doesn’t seem to realise this. Regulatory failures don’t help either.

The combination of regulatory failure and the Forestry Commission’s “reinvention” over the past 10 years as a climate champion has led to its

“new muscular mission to plant trees both on private land and their own land, regardless of the environmental damage…

It sees climate action as carte blanche to plant trees anywhere. Back to the bad old days of the 1980s.”

As an example, a failure of the Environmental Impact Assessment process has allowed Berrier End Farm to be planted with trees, with Forestry Commission grant aid.

West and north of Penrith in Cumbria, right on the edge of the Lake District National Park, the tree plantation is on a hundred acres of sloping land, partly grassland, partly heathland, with a very wet, peaty, bog in the middle of it. Together this forms a botanically rich mosaic of unimproved (and semi-improved) grassland, heathland, blanket bog and basin mire, with calcareous influence.

Perverse public subsidies

The owner of the small Berrier End dairy farm decided that they wanted to turn over this land to tree planting. West Country Bylines has reported on the perverse public subsidies that probably drove this plantation,

“…It’s indicative of the fact that small upland farms like this are right on the edge of financial viability, and with the coming changes to farm subsidies, it’s not surprising that farmers may decide to take up generous payments for tree planting and maintenance instead.”

Doing the arithmetic based on the Woodlands Grants and Incentives, West Country Bylines estimated

  • The woodland creation planning grant to design the planting scheme, was worth £4.5K.
  • The grant for preparation of a woodland management plan was another £1K.
  • The capital grant to cover the costs of planting, paid via the Countryside Stewardship Scheme at £6.8K per hectare, was around another £204k.
  • After creating the plantation, there is a £200/ha/year payment for maintaining it, which comes to £60K/year.

As West Country Bylines notes,

Considering that farm payments are only guaranteed for one year (2021) after this one, it’s easy to see the attraction of going into forestry with grants this generous.

Failure of the Environmental Impact Assessment process

West Country Bylines explained,

The FC asked the applicant to provide evidence about the environmental value of the site and was told it was ‘degraded agricultural land’. A bird survey was carried out which found 16 pairs of breeding skylarks and meadow pipits, plus a potential pair of curlews. For some strange reason this, plus the description by the bird surveyor of the area as acid and marshy grassland, was omitted from the information circulated to consultees, including the RSPB. Had this information been circulated, it’s likely that the response would have been that it needed a full EIA.

The FC approved the application – for a new plantation of 20ha of commercial conifers, 5ha of broadleaves (mostly around the edges) and 5ha of open ground, relating to the deep peat in the centre of the site and also adjacent to the scheduled ancient monument at Stone Carr, to the south. Natural England didn’t object, only commenting on the need to avoid planting on peat greater than 40cm in depth and advised on planting a buffer of broad-leaved tree species along a watercourse. There is some irony here, given that just this week Natural England was praising the importance of protecting blanket bog on its own blog.

Shortly after the application had been approved, the site was drained and ploughed in preparation for tree planting – it’s unusual for this to be done in the summer, especially during the bird nesting season, especially given that the owners knew that there were ground-nesting birds present, from the bird survey they had commissioned. A concerned neighbour contacted local botanists, who visited the site and realised that the plantation was going to destroy a botanically rich mosaic of unimproved (and semi-improved) grassland, heathland, blanket bog and basin mire, with calcareous influence.

The site was not on any map, although I understand that the site had been visited more than once by botanists after 2000, and its value was known. However, no-one with any botanical knowledge had looked at the site before the FC gave approval – some site visits had been cancelled and the public consultation had taken place during lockdown.

Unofficial visits by botanists, after the ploughing had begun, recorded over 100 species of plants and lower plants, including several Red Data Book species, and a number of rare and threatened grassland and other habitats. Despite being presented with this additional information the FC refused to reconsider, let alone reverse, their decision.

Ploughing peat soils releases far more carbon than the planted trees will ever sequester., Photo Credit:Miles King

Rocky Common’s designation as County Wildlife Site is no protection against tree plantation – funded by Forestry Commission

In the last few days another top wildlife site in Cumbria has been planted with trees grant-aided by the Forestry Commission, despite Rocky Common’s designation as a County Wildlife Site.

Rocky Common – Forestry Commission tree planting. Photo credit: @alanferguson51

Alan Fergusson tweeted:

“Rocky Common owned by Witherslack Estates was block planted (using FC Grant aid) despite it being a County Wildlife site, designated as such because of its ancient grassland and open grown trees.

FC followed the right process but consultees failed to respond. The protection of biodiverse sites needs to be reviewed and improved

For at least the last 10 years, conservationists have been highlighting the enormous value of open habitats such as lowland heathland and bog on sites owned by the Forestry Commission, (or Forest Enterprise as it was previously known). And just last week the conservation NGOs were decrying the FC’s decision to replant conifers on lowland heathland where a fire had burnt off the trees last Summer.

Really it looks as if the Forestry Commission has lost its way; and weakened regulatory processes and agencies are incapable of bringing it back to its role as a conservation organisation where climate change mitigation works WITH conservation and restoration of biodiversity and peat soil – not against them.

If the current system is failing to protect important sites, when there’s only a few thousand hectares of plantation every year, how much will be lost when it’s 13 times as much planting?

As West Byline Times points out,

Without major changes in the way regulators operate, this sort of calamity could easily happen in and around the uplands of south-west England. As farmers look at the reducing income from sheep, dairy and beef cattle farming especially, they may well be tempted to take up the generous subsidies – and tax breaks – on offer for commercial forestry.

The biggest single thing that would resolve this problem, would be the systematic completion of the priority habitat inventory. At the moment the priority habitat inventory (PHI) map is so incomplete that it’s actually dangerous, because it creates a false sense of security. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) hold very useful plant data down to 1km square level and a quick check of their database would have immediately set alarm bells ringing. While the PHI is brought up to an acceptable standard, BSBI and other data must be used.

Secondly the FC needs to look again at their ‘low risk’ areas map and the way they use it. At the moment everything that isn’t recognised as a valuable feature is lumped together into ‘low risk’, when in fact it’s a mix of ‘low risk’ and ‘unknown risk’.

Thirdly is it really acceptable in this day and age, that FC staff responsible for implementing the government’s massive tree planting target, are incapable of recognising a piece of priority habitat when it’s staring them in the face? This case certainly indicates the urgent need for training.

Finally, this also illustrates that if you cut regulatory organisations’ funding to the bone, don’t be too surprised if they mess up.

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