Woodland ownership in 21st Century Britain

Gabriel Hemery, Chief Executive of the Sylva Foundation and author of The New Sylva reflects on the joys and responsibilities of owning woodland in Britain today, and introduces a consultation that will ensure the important voices of woodland owners input to the Charter for Trees, Woods and People.

“Every person privileged to own or manage a forest can surely recognise the burden of responsibility, that they are beholden to provide goods and services as well as guardianship and must work with utmost industry to bequeath this resource in a state superior to that in which it was inherited.” The New Sylva, Bloomsbury, 2014

In those words from my book, I attempted to summarise both the privilege and long-term responsibilities of owning a woodland today. For those new to owning and managing a woodland it can be a daunting prospect, with so much to learn — not only the history, biodiversity, soil, economic potential, health, access and other issues relating to the woodland itself — but also major external issues ranging from climate change, pests and pathogens, to government policies. For those who inherited or grew up with a woodland many of these issues will be more familiar but no less challenging to address.

The importance of privately owned woods

From personal experience I know that many people are surprised by the fact that two-thirds of Britain’s woodlands are in private hands. Why is this fact important? It means that for any positive change to happen — be it producing home-grown timber, improving the condition of woodlands for wildlife, providing ecosystem services and so on — then the greatest impacts must come from private woodland owners taking action.

Unfortunately, only about half of our privately-owned woodland area is deemed to be in active management. Lack of income from forestry may make management a distant proposition, while some owners may hold the view that nature should be allowed to take its course. Yet woodland management is critically important. The condition of our woodlands and the activities of man are intertwined, and to pretend otherwise is irrational. We have no wild woods in Britain; all have been affected to some degree or other by human activity.

Why is woodland management important?

Photo: WTML
Firstly, it supports wildlife that has evolved over centuries with our management. For example, the breeding woodland bird index shows that the 2014 level was 20% lower than in 1970. Other specialist woodland biodiversity, from fungi to butterflies, all show similar and deeply worrying declines. Thirteen leading conservation bodies collaborating under Wildlife Link stated:
“The decline in management of our broadleaved woodlands has led to an increasing proportion of high forest areas and a lack of structural complexity and diversity that is crucial for these species.”

It’s not just about wildlife either. The UK is the third largest net importer of forest products, behind China and Japan, importing two-thirds of our timber requirements. If we could produce more home-grown timber, this would reduce wood miles and boost our own economy. Opportunely, as a result it will also support the active management of our woodlands and address the concerns described above.

These issues are at the heart of the work of the Sylva Foundation. The charity works with more than 4,200 woodland owners across Britain, who collectively manage 47,000ha. It supports woodland management among these by providing online tools and resources. Users can map their woodlands using simple tools, including features such as rides and ponds, calculate areas, create maps, and export their data. It also supports the creation of management plans, which currently fit Forestry Commission England and Scotland templates. It is free to use by woodland owners and agents — see www.myforest.org.uk


Do you own or manage woodland?

Sylva Foundation is supporting the charter consultation for woodland owners and custodians. Working alongside many other organisations it is keen to capture their hopes and fears for the future to ensure that the charter speaks for woodland owners, and supports their vital role as custodian of the nation’s woodland heritage.

Find out more: myForest.org.uk/charter


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