As a Druid and a hiker, trees are a subject close to my heart.  Quite apart from all the amazing ecosystem services they quietly get on with, like making oxygen, sequestering carbon, doing splendid things with rainfall and preventing topsoil loss, I can literally feel my stress levels reduce as I hike through woodland and soak up that benign, green filtered atmosphere.  On a deep level, as well as a practical one, trees are important.

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It’s not often in this time of increasing ecological threat that your average person has an opportunity to raise their voice for the natural world and feel that it will be listened to, but we currently have a window of opportunity to stand up for ancient woodland and trees in England.

Right now, the Government are consulting with the public about proposed changes to their planning policy guidelines (National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF), which guide local authorities in deciding planning applications.  And it’s worth responding for two reasons…

The Good news…

The good news is that the proposed changes would give better protection for ancient woodland (classed as ‘any area that’s been wooded continuously since at least 1600’), rendering it much less likely that they’ll be destroyed to build car parks and luxury apartments on a whim.  Developers, however, hate this sort of thing – no doubt feeling that any obstacle to concreting over irreplaceable wildlife habitat is just so much ‘red-tape’ that they could do without.  So it’s wildly important that as many right-thinking people as possible respond to the consultation and voice their approval for robust protection for these vital spaces.

Some of these woods are the last remnants of the ancestral wildwood that once covered the country.  And ancient woodland is home to more threatened wildlife than any other land habitat in the UK, their unique soils have developed over hundreds or thousands of years, giving rise to complex communities of fungi and microorganisms that cannot be reproduced.  There are species that can only survive in ancient woods, making woodland loss irreversible.  Any increase in protection is surely to be welcomed and supported.

 

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The Bad news…

In the same proposed update, unfortunately, there is a weakening of protection for ancient and veteran trees.  If the changes go ahead as they stand then ancient trees would no longer be classed with ancient woodland as ‘irreplaceable habitat’, which would be a huge step backwards.

Ancient trees are those counted as ‘remarkably old for their species’, so a birch might be classed as ancient at 150 years old, an oak at 400 and a yew not until it’s 800 years old.  Veterans are those trees that are not quite ancient yet, but are on their way to being the OAPs of tomorrow.

Not only are these beautiful trees full of gnarly character and steeped in history and lore, but they also support wildlife in a myriad of ways. One ancient oak apparently harbours more biodiversity than a thousand 100-year old oaks.  We can’t simply plant replacements if developers are allowed to destroy them.  They must be given equal protection with ancient woodland,  in acknowledgement that they too are irreplaceable.

 

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The ‘Hug Test’ for aging trees!

The Call to Action…

The Woodland Trust have set up a form to make it easy to respond to the Government’s proposals:

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/support-stronger-planning-policy-for-ancient-woodland/

The deadline is May 10th, so I urge you as fellow hikers and lovers of outdoor spaces, to add your voice and let the Government know that our ancient trees and woodlands matter.

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