Happy New Year everybody. Let’s hope 2014 is better than 2013.
I was wondering what to write for my first blog post of 2014 when my usual supplier turned up. Yes, you’ve guessed it – Owen Paterson Secretary of State for the Environment. Or is he in fact the Secretary of State against the Environment?
OPatz was quoted in the Times then other places as saying that planning authorities could allow developments which destroy Ancient Woodlands, because a thousand trees could be planted elsewhere for every tree that was lost in the ancient woodland. He went on to suggest that the biodiversity offsetting should take place “within an hour’s drive” of the place of destruction. Paterson returned to his favourite theme, arguing that Offsetting “deliver a better environment over the long term”, though accepted that the trees would only really be appreciated by subsequent generations.
Commentators and NGOs have been up in arms at this latest Opatz pronouncement. The Woodland Trust is seething, not surprisingly as they use ancient woodland as a totem to justify their existence. They have some fantastic campaigners, but in truth most of their work is unrelated to ancient woodland conservation, and indeed much closer to Paterson’s tree planting panacea.
From my perspective the Ancient Woodland issue is a red herring.
Ancient Woodland – very few trees ((c) miles king)
The trees currently existing there are only a small part of an ancient woodland’s overall value. Trees grow and die – even a mature oak tree only lives a couple of hundred years at best. Managed as coppice or pollards individuals can live over a thousand years. A very few of our Ancient Woodlands may have direct linkages back to the Wildwood and we can trace woodland cover thousands of years back.
But the other components of an ancient woodland are as valuable as the standing trees, or even more – the ground flora and epiphytes, the invertebrate communities, the fungi which pull everything together, the birds and mammals; the deadwood, the rides, glades and ponds that provide open areas upon which so many “woodland” species depend. Then there are the unploughed soils which tell us of environments past and the amazing wealth of archaeology within them – below, and above ground – the wood banks, holloways, saw pits and lost buildings. And the history of woodlands, as told in estate maps and deeds, and in oral history of communities struggling, flourishing, mourning and celebrating.
Ancient Woodlands are in that sense not much different from other ancient habitats and landscapes – Downlands unploughed since the Black Death, ancient parklands and wood pastures such as the New Forest, formed in the 11th century, or ancient heathlands created in the Neolithic.
Somehow ancient woodlands speak to us in a different way – perhaps this is some long forgotten cultural memory from our Saxon ancestors remembering the Great Teutonic Forests. This seems more likely to me than a connection back to Ancient Britons and their forests, though these links are undoubtedly far stronger in Wales and perhaps Scotland?
None of this is of any interest to Owen Paterson of course – he is a utilitarian neoliberal, who is under the guidance of his brother-in-law the rational optimist Matt Ridley. Ridley is a passionate anti-environmentalist, disguised as a rationalist. He was also chair of Northern Rock bank when it collapsed, contributing to the global financial crisis. Presumably he still looks back on his role their with optimism, now he has entered the House of Lords. Ridley’s family made their fortune in Coal in the 19th century, so it is no great surprise that he is an arch climate change denialist. Ridley like Paterson both believe the environment is there to be improved, the plaything of an autocratic ruler, who believes himself to be benevolent, even though he is not.
For me, the most enligthening aspect of this start to 2014, is that Defra is supposed to be considering the responses to the consultation on biodiversity offsetting that took place at the end of 2013. Paterson has clearly already made his mind up – or rather has decided to go ahead with the proposals presumably laid out for him by brother Matt.