Biodiversity Offsets and the Antique Woodland Roadshow

What exactly is an Antique Woodland?

The other day I found myself at a recent event put on by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity to discuss Biodiversity Offsets. The Consultation is out at the moment and you can respond here  – please do. I have recently blogged about BO (sorry) for the Woodland Trust and will try not to repeat myself.

Owen Paterson seemed genuinely enthusiastic about BO and seemed to believe that it would only generate more improved and better biodiversity. OP is keen to improve the environment. He’s not so interested in protecting it, presumably because protection can mean something does not get improved. OP said “I want to improve the environment, not protect it.” I think I knew what he meant, but it could be read two ways couldnt it.

There were some interesting discussions about the duration of an offset. David Hill, chairman of BO-cheerleaders the Environment Bank (and deputy chair of presumed BO-regulators Natural England) suggested that having  agreements with BO providers of improved biodiversity longer than 20 years would constrict the “supply side” of the market. I suggested that from experience, all would struggle to get commitment from BO providers beyond 15 years, as that was the cut-off after which open farmland habitats could be classified as “semi-natural”and protected under the EIA regulations. Nobody seems to have pointed this out to the SoS.

There was discussion of metrics and how important getting the metrics right was. But the current metric of habitat hectares ignores the time dimension. Does 10 habitat hectares for 10 years equal 5 habitat hectares for 20 years? I suggested we needed the metric to include time and become habitat hectare years.

But if we destroy say, a piece of heathland that has been around for 4000 years, and replace with a piece of new habitat that is only guaranteed for 20 years, what kind of offsetting is that? We were reassured that if a developer wanted to develop a piece of land that had been “improved” for biodiversity through offsetting, the cost in credits would be so astronomical as to be impossible. But if the land is farmland, there’s nothing to stop it being ploughed in (apart from the aforementioned EIA regs – which don’t work.)

OP painted a picture for us of a bypass going through a woodland (not necessarily ancient) and a “bit of wet ground.” Offsets could pay to “improve a local ecosystem” for “the pleasure of future generations”. He then mentioned a Dairy having to be extended and destroying a (great crested) Newt Pond. The answer, to create more ponds nearby and more Newts.

 OP talked about a visit to the Nene Valley recently where he had met Steph Hilborne of the Wildlife Trusts. He waved a map showing the extent of ELS/HLS in Northants (he had waved the same map at the Environmental Audit Committee not a week previously) and stated that BO could provide a substantial financial endowment for landowners in AE schemes, for a 25 year programme “to enhance the habitat.” OP seemed excited at the prospect of long term well funded large scale projects being funded by BO. He seemed less concerned about the concept of additionality.

Under questioning, OP suggested that a functioning BO market would actually reduce the risk of development damaging biodiversity, because of the price. A road scheme in NSW had caused the loss of 50 VOTs (very old trees). BO had paid for a 25 year programme to manage 200 VOTs in return. OP argued that this was about environmental gain and that it would bring in substantial funding in addition to Pillar 2 funding.

At least everyone agreed that in order to function at all, offsetting needed to be mandatory. But then OP suggested that it was really only about large projects – a threshold of 10 housing units would remove 90% of housing developments from the OP system. What would happen to the biodiversity loss caused by all those developments then?

As far as irreplaceable habitats are concerned, Professor Dieter Helm, chair of the natural capital committee is at this moment working on the “bricks” of the metrics, according to OP. I have visions of Prof Helm with a big pile of lego – now let’s say ancient woodland are green bricks – how many bricks do we need to offset an ancient woodland. What about meadows – shall we use yellow because they have many yellow flowers…” perhaps not.

Barry Gardiner interjected “what about Antique woodland, surely that’s irreplaceable?” Everyone agreed antique woodland could not be replaced using Biodiversity Offsets. It just needs a bit of beeswax now and again.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in barry gardiner, Biodiversity APPG, biodiversity offsetting, housing, Owen Paterson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Biodiversity Offsets and the Antique Woodland Roadshow

  1. David Dunlop says:

    “But then OP suggested that it was really only about large projects – a threshold of 10 housing units would remove 90% of housing developments from the OP system. What would happen to the biodiversity loss caused by all those developments then?”

    Ah! I guess “the little people” just struggle on with the planning system we have already (NPPF, Local Plans, planning conditions and obligations &c) until that’s reformed to make it “faster” – again.

  2. Steve Hallam says:

    Miles, another very interesting post. As I’m quite new to this area, could you explain what habitats are considered to be ‘irreplaceable’? (or point me towards an existing explanation).
    At the risk of displaying my ignorance, it seems to me that an important principle of BO should be that what is created is (or can become) of equivalent value of what is being lost. So, if the supply of potential land for new BO sites is only guaranteed for a set period of time (15 years in the case you refer to), then this principle would mean that such land should only be used to create a habitat that can achieve its full potential in well under 15 years. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing the offset?
    Is this how you see things, or have I got this wrong?

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Steve. If you look at this document

      in appendix 1 and 2, you’ll see as far as I can tell Defra’s current position on what is recreatable, what is restorable; and how long they think it might take.

      Of course it depends on what you’re trying to create. You can’t create an ancient woodland, but bizarrely you can instantly create an area of priority habitat woodland, just by planting a mainly broadleaved mix of sticks in the ground. That’s because of the way that the broadleaved woodland priority habitat has been defined.

      You can’t recreate an old meadow, but you can create a new meadow from sowing wildflower seed; again when the new meadow meets the threshold for priority habitat status, it has become priority habitat, even though it won’t even be a shadow of the old meadow.

      Because of this, some priority habitats can be created within 10 or 15 years, but the quality of the habitat created will in no way replace the loss of old, long established semi-natural habitat.

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