Ancient woods under threat if Government plans get go ahead
The Westcountry’s ancient woodlands could be under threat if Government plans to allow developers to destroy woodland if they agree to plant 100 trees for each one felled get the go ahead.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson sparked anger from campaigners after defending the “biodiversity offsetting” scheme he plans to introduce.
The scheme would allow developers to compensate for the destruction of habitats by creating or enhancing other natural areas.
About 7.5% of the land area in Cornwall is woodland, measuring some 26,869 hectares. While ancient woods in Devon include Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, which is around 263 hectares.
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Mr Paterson told The Times the policy could be applied to woods dating back more than 400 years – around a third of all woodland in England.
While destroying mature trees was a “tragic loss”, replacing each with 100 new ones would “deliver a better environment over the long term”, he said.
Defra said any move to build on ancient woodland would be restricted to major projects and would only get planning permission in exceptional cases.
Mr Paterson conceded that the present generation of UK residents would lose out and that replacement sites could be up to an hour away by car.
But he insisted the initiative – designed to ease the construction of homes, roads and major projects – would result in an “enormous increase” in trees.
“The point about offsetting is it will deliver a better environment over the long term,” he told the newspaper.
He signalled that he would like to see offsetting become compulsory to encourage a market of sites that could be improved.
That was one recommendation of a report by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee which also raised serious concerns.
It said the proposed system was too simplistic to take into account the full value of the lost sites and a full assessment of pilot projects was required.
While speeding up development was welcome, there was a risk developers were given “carte blanche” to concrete over valuable habitats, it concluded.
The report specifically highlighted fears ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest would not be adequately protected.
Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Paul de Zylva said including ancient woodlands “highlights the absurdity” of the policy.
“It’s the quality of forests that’s important, not just the quantity of trees.
“Ministers should be protecting nature, instead of gambling with it by allowing Britain’s best wildlife sites to be shifted around the country.
“The Government’s mad cap biodiversity offsetting plans should get the chop - not our forests.”
The Woodland Trust said more than 380 ancient woods were already under threat from projects including the HS2 high-speed rail line.
Offsetting should only be used as a “last resort”, policy director Hilary Allison told The Times – criticising Mr Paterson’s suggestion that an hour’s journey by car would be close enough to do compensatory work.
“It is critical that any habitats created to compensate for loss are placed within the local area that suffered the original impact,” she said.
“Unfortunately, this still appears open to debate.”
Three years ago, Mr Paterson’s predecessor Caroline Spelman was forced by public outcry into an embarrassing U-turn on plans to sell off England’s public forests.
Campaigners are now warning that they too could be under threat again in the form of plans to introduce a new management organisation to “own and manage the Public Forest Estate”.
Defra insists there are no plans to sell or privatise England’s forests following the establishment of the new arrangements