Sunday, 30 January 2011

England's forests for sale

I declare an interest: I love trees. I don't seem to find that many of them these days, especially not in the same place - and they're often found put there on purpose, or the space around them adapted to our tastes. Here's a little collection, though. Three are in a public woodland, Idless Woods in Cornwall. The others are from Kew Gardens, my old university campus, and a patch of ground near where I live in Wales . . .

This country was not always like that. Once upon a time, it was covered with forests. That was the natural thing. (Is it just me or is our hero in many fairy tales a poor woodcutter?) Have you heard about succession? It was a beautiful little concept I learnt of in first year A level Biology - take a barren area, perhaps rocky, or a beach, with no fertile soil. Start with the faintest sprinkling of a few tiny, hardy plants. As they drive their roots into the ground, they create airholes, a good soil texture (not with particles so large that the water all drains away, such as pure sand, or so small that it clogs and floods like clay), fix nutrients, and generally set up a complex ecosystem. Plants and bacteria and animals - first tiny ones, and later larger ones - find their homes there.

A forest, if I understand correctly, is pretty much the last stage of that. Trees reach for the light. When the rain hammers down from the sky, the trees' leaves break its fall, softening the raindrops' impact on the soil and preventing if from being washed away. Moss grows on trees. Dead leaves provide nutrients for next year. When a tree dies, its dead wood is home to hundreds of creatures. A rainforest is a symbol of perfect recycling and order - evaporation from the plants even often control the weather, and set off predictable and regular cloudbursts - a temperate forest is certainly less dramatic, but the same general processes go on.

But what such a system is not - like so many things ecological - is speedy. A tree takes hundreds of years to grow. Some forest ecosystems have been suggested to be adapted to forest fires. But a wipeout of an area of trees in a forest not so adapted would take years and years to recover. Vast as it may seem, and remote, an ecosystem is a delicate thing.

Gradually, forests were cut or burnt back to make way for farms, and then towns. Gradually, more and more of what is now the UK was invaded by one horde after another, and land became something owned by humans, to do with as they liked. Of course, so many animals have ways of "owning" their territory - by patrolling and spraying it, and chasing off competitors; and I have the feeling from my faraway biology studies there are a great many plant species that barely survive or have been driven to extinction by relentless chomping or wanton destruction by local critters. But ecosystems have had time to adapt to that. No animal, to the best of my knowledge, has the desire or the means to eliminate all plants that grow around it. I think the only time this happens is when a fairly large animal is tethered or enclosed in a small space, and tramples all the grass.

Not that humans generally have, either. We all love to see a bit of greenness. When I was 20 I visited Norway, and my guidebook was pretty exact on how forests were regarded there. (I cannot recommend enough a visit to Bergen on the west coast, and a trek round the forests and up the mountains that surround it. That was one of the most magical days of my life.) A walk in the woods was supposed to cure all stress and misery. There was an indestructable tradition of collective ownership - I think it even had a name (if only I knew where that guidebook was now!) - and of the right of all people to walk through the woods, pretty much anywhere. As long as you were further away than 200m from the nearest fence around a property, you could camp anywhere, too. It's possible that the book was exaggerating or romanticising madly, and I was young and impressionable then; but as I walked through Norwegian woods and met others doing likewise, I felt a sense of almost sacredness, of a collective treasure that nobody could be denied.

This all sounds very woolly and hard to pin down in today's world. Everything has to be owned by someone, and to have some utilitarian, measurable, monetary purpose. To today's government, collective ownership of what forests England has left is something that can be dispensed with. "We're going to make billions of pounds this way! We need to reduce the deficit! Oh, and yes of course they'll be sold to really responsible owners, who'll let you all still enjoy them. In fact, private ownership is a guarantee of improvement. They will be managed more efficiently this way." Or something like that.

I say England, because Wales is keeping out of it for now (I don't know what is going to happen to us, but my hopes are not high) and here is the map of the forests that are up for sale:

Just who are these responsible owners? "The controversial decision will pave the way for a huge expansion in the number of Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain as land is sold to private companies," reports the Telegraph.

A spokesman for David Cameron claims that "We are not going to sell off our heritage forests to the highest bidder, we are not going to remove public access to forests – there will be strict rules in place to prevent that happening. There is a consultation. We are going to have that consultation and listen to people's views and then come to some conclusions." I'm sorry, spokesman, but I simply don't believe you. Once someone has bought a forest, and it's their property, how are you going to stop them then cutting the whole thing down? You couldn't. And money would have exchanged hands; they'd be your mate. You wouldn't want to upset them. That's the way you people do things.

The government claim the issue is not private versus public ownership, while a large segment of the public argue that it is. Typically, there are the usual howls about how some woods under public ownership haven't managed them perfectly, and therefore privatisation necessarily will. Funny how you never hear the opposite being suggested in cases where private companies do a bad job - apparently, competition is the cure-all to that . . .

(As an aside, this "consultation" about "how we would like our forests sold" is exactly the same as what Labour were fobbing us off with regarding our National Health Service, when they were closing Accident and Emergency departments in the name of efficiency. They designed a survey which asked people all about choice, and then concluded that the public wanted choice. Someone wrote to the Independent to remark that the survey would have failed as A level Psychology coursework. It was like asking, "Do you like tea or coffee?", ignoring those who said "orange juice", and then reporting triumphantly, "Buyers exclusively like hot drinks! Let's dispense with fruit juice in the name of consumer choice!")

OK, I'm stereotyping my head off here, but as another aside, trust them to be going for golf courses. I'd love to see a library, youth club or community centre being the thing to replace a forest. But no, again, if anyone benefits from this sell-off, it will be the ultra-wealthy few.

Our forests are more than pretty trees, more than a nice walk that doesn't get the economy going. They're lifeblood of the biosphere. They're what keeps our soil good, and they help prevent floods. They're the precious remaining homes of millions of innocent creatures. They're a place to keep people sane amidst the stress of a noisy, utilitarian world. They release oxygen and soak up carbon dioxide, maintaining the delicate balance of our atmosphere. They're a tiny bit of our world that has every right to remain. Too much will die if it's lost.

I suppose none of what I've said here can sway anyone who thinks only of money. But I know I'm not alone. About 300,000 people have now signed 38 Degrees's Save Our Forests petition. The National Trust and the Woodland Trust have both made their views clear. I feel horribly conscious that my science on this topic is rusty. And that we'll have difficulty phrasing our arguments in a capitalist, government-impressing, management-speak way. But I don't believe that invalidates them.

It's well summed up here in the Independent, and by a commenter on the BBC website: "Woodland does not 'belong' to people. We are stewards who safeguard it for the benefit of all creatures. The idea of our remaining precious public access woodland being sold off to the super rich to barr families who enjoy being in the woods is totally unthinkable. This government is taking reckless, far-reaching decisions, which will impact on many generations to come. Once the woodland is sold off that's it - there is no going back."

You can catch up with all the media stories here on 38 Degrees - there's quite a bit of history, too, especially on the subject of how the Forestry Commission was set up after the wreck of the First World War. People knew what damage was then. They should bear in mind what damage is now. Modern society needed to progress to a certain extent to realise that human beings should not be put up for sale - perhaps there are other things, and forests fall into that category, that should receive similar exemption.

If you agree, please sign that petition and tell everyone you know. It's particularly interesting that whenever I see it mentioned, or mention it myself, along comes someone else who turns out not to have known and is aghast. Parliament will be making the decision very soon - a lot of people are making their voice known one way or another these days; please add yours!

Update, 12th February 2011: The bill did go through - but now they're rethinking. So there's still time to act.

Update, 17th February: LOOK!!!!!

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