Forestry Commission ignores pleas and replants conifers after Wareham Heath fire

Conifers on Wareham heath after the fire in May 2020 © Miles King

This press release was published this morning.

Wildlife charities call for new vision after Forestry England replant conifers on precious heathland


RSPB, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and Butterfly Conservation have today expressed concern after Forestry England’s (FE) decision to replant pine trees on precious heathland in Wareham Forest. In the current ecological emergency, they urge FE to begin working with them on a new heathland vision for FE’s estate in Purbeck.


In March (sic – it was May) 2020, 192 hectares of Wareham Forest was accidentally burnt, much of it a low-value conifer crop grown for timber. The charities had previously pressed FE locally to recognise Wareham Forest as a priority for large-scale heathland restoration. They also asked FE to hold off on automatically replanting the burnt area, pending a ‘root and branch’ review of FE’s Wareham Forest Plan and discussion with the charities about how best to restore the site’s outstanding heathland potential.  However, last week, Forestry England went ahead with tree-planting on a large part of the burn area, much to the concern of the wildlife charities.


Dante Munns speaking for RSPB said, “This was an excellent opportunity to expand and link the heathland in Wareham Forest with the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve as part of an extensive nature recovery network. It was a great chance to boost populations of rare birds like Dartford warblers, nightjars and reptiles like sand lizards and smooth snakes.


“The RSPB and its partners have decades of experience in managing and restoring heathland at places like Arne and Winfrith. Having worked well with FE work to restore large areas of former heathland in Rempstone Forest, we don’t understand why FE rushed ahead with replanting. We’ve already lost so much precious heathland and opportunities like this don’t come along very often. It’s very, very disappointing.”


Imogen Davenport, Conservation Director, Dorset Wildlife Trust said, “All our charities are passionate about the need for more trees and woodland but there is growing concern that poor choices are being made in the push to do this quickly.  It’s crucial that we plant the right sort of tree in the right place, in Dorset using broadleaved trees like oak, willow and birch which are wildlife superstars, and avoiding planting on precious habitats like heathlands. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have recently issued a ten-point guide to ensuring that tree planting does not cause more harm than good. Sad to say this planting fails on all ten points.”


The restocking of Wareham Forest comes at a time when there is growing concern over poor choices being made over the planting of trees in the UK.


Tony Gent, Chief Executive Officer, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said, “The fragmented nature of our Dorset heathlands puts immense pressure on the rare wildlife that relies on it. We, along with many other wildlife charities, have spent decades protecting the remaining heathlands in Dorset and people really enjoy visiting them.  But we really need to work hard to create more, bigger, and better joined-up sites, new nature recovery networks. And places like Wareham Forest are crucial pieces in the jigsaw. FE has a huge role to play in restoring nature, but fundamentally change what is currently a very damaging direction.”


Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s Policy Manager, said: “The Wareham Forest fire is both a disaster and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rare at a global scale, Britain is home to a fifth of the world’s remaining lowland heathland. The unique character of Dorset’s once-vast heathlands and their rare and beautiful wildlife, such as pale dog-violet and yellow centaury, smooth snake and nightjar, could emerge from the blackened earth like a Phoenix from the flames.  With the combined experience of the nation’s conservation organisations for birds, butterflies, reptiles, and wild plants, in partnership with Forestry England, restoration at Wareham Forest could act as a shining example of a nuanced approach to regenerating magnificent wildlife-rich landscapes open to all.  It could be very exciting indeed.  We have to ask ourselves – is this really the best site for a conifer plantation?”


Dante Munns for RSPB added, “We’re keen to help FE redefine its vision and direction on these precious heathland sites. We have the knowledge and the practical experience of managing large open areas of heathland. We stand ready to help; we just need them to talk with us.”

The BBC published this story as a result, in which they characterise replanting conifers on lowland heathland, an internationally important and threatened habitat, as “restoration.”

They also include a quote from local Forestry England Director South Bruce Rothnie “Our work will ensure these young trees can reach maturity and really contribute to the goal of reaching net carbon zero.” This is arrant nonsense, but it does show how the Forestry Commission is reinventing itself (again) as the saviour of Net Zero.

Planting conifers on Wareham’s damp, organo-mineral soils – as much of the area previously coniferised is, will lead to substantial loss of carbon overall, as the tree roots damage the soil carbon and release it.

Rothnie also throws a meagre bone to the conservation NGOs “Also, we’ve left large areas unplanted to expand existing areas of heathland and connect them through unplanted corridors.” Not according to those who have seen the site and the areas replanted.

All of this drives a coach and horses through the Government’s own stated aims in the 25 Year Environment Plan and their vaunted plans for a national nature recovery network.

Meanwhile the FC wraps itself in the Net Zero flag and gets away with it.


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 climate action, climate change, Forestry Commission, heathland, tree planting, Uncategorized, Wareham Forest and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Forestry Commission ignores pleas and replants conifers after Wareham Heath fire

  1. Is there any scope for getting the FC to think again? Meaning grubbing out the recently planted saplings and entering into some dialogue with other stakeholders about the benefits for people and nature that might come from a more enlightened approach…

  2. Roger Cartwright says:

    Here in the north of England at Ashstead Fell, Cumbria, an area that has been recently added to the Lake District Natioanl Park is also being proposed for replanted mainly with conifers.This area was highly controversial conifer afforestation in the late 1980’s that was eventually approved by the Forestry Commission after modifications to improve its appearance in the landscape but only minimal inclusion of broadleaves. These largely failed because they required more care in the early stages and there was not the dsame same commitment to succdedd as displayed for the conifers! The agent has resisted calls fo more planting of broacdleaves claiming: ” “Planning permission for the forest road has already been approved. This will provide good access to all parts of the plantation, which can be worked with standard harvesting equipment.

    Government policy is now firmly supportive of forest expansion including productive softwood plantations, which will help reduce the UK’s significant trade imbalance in timber products and contribute to reducing CO2.

    I would point out that there has been no public money in the form of grants to support the forest plan and it is unlikely we are eligible for support with additional planting as there is little net change in the total planted area.”

    • Roger Cartwright says:

      This was my letter to the Forestry Commission regarding Ashstead Fell
      application no. FL-010-38-2021

      Dear Sir/madam

      I have previously commented on a felling licence application (FL-010-1224-2019) and reminded you that I had been involved in the landscape design (as landscape architect with Cumbria County Council) of the original scheme with EFG and the Forestry Commission and the debate that occurred from 1986 onwards. And subsequently in February 1998 when I was working in private practice, I prepared a Woodland Estate Management Report for the previous owner (Professor John Uff, QC) and much of what I said then is still relevant.

      The crucial broad leaved proportion of the original planting largely failed and those that survived are a poor substitute for what was originally promised. However, as I said previously there are a few broadleaved trees that remain from the original (and numerous half hearted replacement plantings) that have become successfully established and it is essential that these are retained and protected during the felling operations.
      I therefore had no strong objection to the proposed clear felling in 2019 and replanting on the existing footprint at Borrowdale North, although I would prefer to see all of the woodland thinned and I welcomed the construction of a new deer fenced enclosure.

      I have seen the Friends of the Lake District comments which reiterate some of the original fundamental objections to the planting – some (but not all) of which have been confirmed and are now plain to see in the Landscape!

      I have not seen the details of the present proposals but based on my detailed knowledge of the area and interpretation of what the Friends of the Lake District are saying my comments are: –
      1. I agree with the Friends of the Lake District that some of the conifer planting is incongruous in both the local and wider landscape, particularly the higher level conspicuous planting on Mabbin Crag, which as predicted can be seen from as far away as Kendal.
      2. It sounds as though the new planting may obscure some of the open spaces along the Borrowdale valley that were left as part of the ‘original agreement’ to prevent an oppressive woodland atmosphere and maintain attractive views.
      3. However, some strategic planting of broadleaves could help soften and diversify some of these woodland edges – “the right trees in the right place”!
      I would obviously prefer to see a much higher proportion of native broadleaves included and achieved in the new planting.

      Experience at Ashstead Fell and other upland sites has convinced me that deer fencing will be essential for the success of any new broadleaved planting. Now that extensive areas of conifer plantation are already present and are proving excellent cover for deer, intensive stalking will be needed but will not be sufficient to protect the broad leaved trees on this site during the initial establishment phase.

      I have now (after closing date for FC comments) seen more details of what exactly is proposed on the ground and have commented to the agent as follows:
      “1. The road needs to be carefully designed to minimise visual impact.
      2. A short length of the deer fence will create a hard line but this could be adjusted on site to follow the contours and most of the fencing should be hidden within the existing woodland and the protection it supplies could allow for mixed planting of at least 30% broadleaves. Personally I feel that Scots pine and Norway spruce might fit in as ‘near natural’ conifers, better than Douglas fir.
      3. Broadleaved planting would be more in line with emerging future policy for National Parks – see “Landscapes Review” (the Glover report) September 2019) September 2019.”

      Ashstead Fell, together with Dent Fell in West Cumbria were the last two major conifer afforestation schemes in Cumbria that I know of and to help maintain the credibility and sincerity of future afforestation proposals, it is essential for mistakes to be acknowledged and that the spirit of the original agreements on landscape and wild life protection are maintained.

  3. Philip Glyn says:

    It’s not clear if this work was within the SAC or SPA. If it was, surely this would be in contravention of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which has been updated to reflect the fact that the legislation still applies in the UK even if not now under the EU Habitats Directive.

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