Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Bring Back the Ancient Woodlands

Assembly Minister Elin Jones AM will be asked to support the preservation and restoration of ancient deciduous woodlands in Wales. There are vast acres of coniferous forest plantations and these trees are not natural to the environment, and lead to acidic soils. Only 2% of forest in th UK is ancient deciduous woodland and the Celtic peoples of Britain revered these trees and assigned a nature spirit to every species.

Ancient woodland under threat

Ancient semi-natural woodland disappeared at an alarming rate during the last century. Nearly half the ancient woodland remaining in the 1930s was either cleared for agriculture. Recent research shows that 44 per cent of Britain’s remaining ancient woodland is now plantation, and about two-thirds of this plantation is coniferous or mixed8. Overlay of the AWIs with the NIWT undertaken by Oxford University’s Forestry Institute in association with Forest Research, commissioned by the Woodland Trust, reveals the following figures:
England Wales Scotland Total GB
ASNW (ha) 193,460 26,972 64,570 285,002
PAWS (ha) 140,125 24,703 54,725 219,553
Total AW (ha) 333,585 51,675 119,295 504,555
PAWS/AW (%) 42 48 46 44

On this basis the percentage of Britain’s woodland cover that is ancient in origin is less than 19% (10.5% ancient semi-natural woodland and 8% planted ancient woodland sites). However, these figures differ significantly from those that can be derived from the AWIs alone, especially in Scotland, illustrating the need for further work to reconcile different datasets.

In Northern Ireland, the Woodland Trust’s work showed that only 0.73 per cent of the land is covered with woodland that has been continuously present since at least 1830, when the first OS maps were produced. Only 0.08 per cent of Northern Ireland (just over 1,000 ha) is woodland that can be shown with certainty to be ancient. Around a third of ancient and long-established woods is now conifer or mixed plantations.

Increasingly our ancient woods are small islands within a hostile landscape of intensive agriculture and urban sprawl. Only 617 ancient woods in GB exceed 100 hectares (one square kilometre) and only 46 ASNWs exceed 300 hectares. Of the ancient woods recorded on the AWIs in Britain, 48 per cent are smaller than five hectares9. Given that there is likely to be a substantial number smaller than two hectares, this means that most ancient woods may have no core area unaffected by edge effects from surrounding land use10. Most may also be too small to sustain healthy populations of many woodland species, and too isolated to allow migration, particularly given that many ancient woodland species are relatively immobile. As climate change accelerates, species that are unable to relocate to occupy suitable climate space may face local extinction11.

More species have become nationally extinct in the last 100 years from broadleaved woodland than any other habitat (46 species), and it also has the most globally threatened and rapidly declining species (78 species)3. The Institute for Terrestrial Ecology’s Countryside Survey 90 showed that between 1978 and 1990 losses in species richness of woodland (14 per cent) from plots located at random exceeded that for all other semi-natural habitats. And in 2000, a pilot re-survey of 14 of the sites last looked at in 1971 revealed a range of potential issues, including a striking general decline in the variety of woodland plants, with those characteristic of ancient woods suffering most12.

Yet ancient woods are still under threat, particularly from development. In a study commissioned by the Woodland Trust13, 23 per cent of organisations that responded to a questionnaire (including planning authorities, wildlife trusts, Forestry Commission and countryside campaigning bodies) were aware of ancient woods currently under threat. The responses brought to light 109 cases across Britain of ancient woods lost to or threatened by development in the last few years. Development threats associated with transport and infrastructure appeared to be the most significant (31 per cent of cases), followed by amenity and leisure developments (14 per cent), housing (10 per cent), and quarrying and mineral extraction (six per cent). Add to this the more insidious but still very real threats of degradation of our ancient woods through inappropriate use or management and repeated replanting with non-native species1, and the future looks bleak indeed.

As the last bastions of so much of our wildlife heritage, ancient woods deserve protection. Yet only 14 per cent of the UK’s ancient woodland is included within Sites of Special Scientific Interest14 and the remainder, including 14 of the 46 largest ASNWs in Great Britain, has no statutory protection. More recent national planning policies in Scotland and Wales give some cause for hope. In Scotland, NPPG14 states that ‘planning authorities should seek to protect…ancient and semi-natural woodlands [which] have the greatest value for nature conservation’ (para 51). Planning Policy Wales states ‘Ancient and semi-natural woodlands are irreplaceable habitats of high biodiversity value which should be protected from development that would result in significant damage’ (para 5.2.8). In England, PPS9 states that local authorities should “identify any areas of ancient woodland in their areas that do not have statutory protection” and normally “not grant planning permission for any development which would result in its loss or deterioration.”

1 comment:

Dave Coulter said...

I learned about your blog from the Society for Ecological Restoration. I was in Swansea a few years back, and hope to get back again someday and see more of the countryside.

The loss of prairies here in Illinois is as staggering as the loss of ancient woodlands. It's heartbreaking, and we are left to fight to protect scraps.

We are also losing our oaks, which is a concern of mine as well. Virtually all of the old trees were simply logged to help build the cities in the 1800's.

Anyway, enough grim facts. Keep up the good work.