Thursday 10 December 2015
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Protection of Ancient Woodland and Trees
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protection of ancient woodland and trees.
I thank not only the Chair and the Minister, but the Back Benchers who have turned up today in support of the debate, which struck an enormous chord when I first started talking to people about it. I also thank the Woodland Trust, which has championed the cause not only of trees, but of ancient woodland and veteran trees for so many years.
Mr Turner, I want to begin by taking us on a magical mystery tour, if you would like to come with me. Imagine that we are walking down a track through a dense coniferous and mixed-species forest. After crunching leaves underfoot for some time, we dive off into the denser part of the forest and suddenly come upon a glade with dappled light filtering through the canopy. There is a carpet of mixed plants beneath our feet. Wild flowers are bursting into bloom and birds are singing. All of a sudden, we see these gargantuan sentries, as if guarding time itself. Huge, enormous oak trees rise out of the carpet. They have a sort of mystery about them, an air of knowingness. They are covered in nooks and crannies. They are filled with creatures such as the vulnerable cardinal click beetle, woodpeckers, brown long-eared bats, wood mice, stag beetles, tawny owls and hornets, and multifarious fungi, moss and lichen, all taking advantage of the antiquated bark. It is reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s “The Magic Faraway Tree”—I do not know whether you have ever read it, Mr Turner.
Those were the first ancient trees that I ever encountered. They were 500 years old and part of the ancient forest of Neroche close to where I live in the Blackdown hills. I was filming them for “Saving the Best Bits”, a film about the special habitats of Somerset, and I have never forgotten the experience. Ancient trees, which form only part of today’s debate, are living relics. The age at which a tree becomes ancient varies with the species as some live longer than others, but the oldest ancient tree, the Fortingall yew in Scotland, is said to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Veteran trees are also included in today’s debate. They are not quite as old, but they are on their way to becoming ancient trees. More than 120,000 such trees are listed on the ancient tree inventory.
However, we are talking today about not only specimens, but ancient woodland as a whole. Ancient woodland is our richest terrestrial habitat, but the sad situation is that only 2% of it remains. Something is classed as ancient woodland if it has been on the map since 1600 in England. In Scotland, it is slightly later at 1750. The date is when good maps first came into use, so we were obviously slightly ahead in England. I regard ancient woodland as our equivalent of the rainforest. It represents the last fragments of the wildwood that cloaked the land after the ice age. It is a biodiverse and rich habitat that is home to animals and plants that depend on the stable conditions that ancient woodland provides. It is so rare, however, that it contains many threatened species. The loss of ancient woodlands over the past 100 years has meant that 45 species associated with them have disappeared, which is an absolute tragedy. The woods are not just biodiverse; they are living history books, because they contain fascinating historical features such as medieval boundaries, charcoal hearths and old coppice stools, all of which provide a window into past lives. They are irreplaceable parts of our heritage.
I very much like the way that my hon. Friend is presenting this debate. We are neighbours and our constituencies share the Blackdown hills. There is ancient woodland there and all across Devon. We need to protect it, and when we need to do something such as dual the A303 or A30, we must find ways of ensuring that we go around ancient woodland rather than through it. We need infrastructure, but we need to maintain our ancient woodland.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I entirely agree. I will be referring to his point later in respect of the reference to green infrastructure in our manifesto. I know the roads he mentions well and know the debates that have gone on for years about dualling the A30, but it has to fit in with the environment. All things are possible, so we have to get round these things.
To be clear, we are discussing not only the trees themselves, but the soils underneath them, too. The soils have built up over centuries and, just like the woods, cannot be recreated. The soils are equivalent to those in the rainforest and are just as precious. They contain genetic material and biodiversity that could be the key to life-saving treatments or combating pests. We remove them at our peril.
Turning to the detail, there are two types of ancient woodland. The first is ancient semi-natural woods, which are composed predominantly of trees and shrubs native to the site that do not obviously originate from planting and have grown up from the beginning. Often, such woods have been managed through coppicing or pollarding, but they still count as ancient woodland. The second type is plantations on ancient woodland sites, which are where former native tree cover has been felled and replaced by planted trees predominantly of species not native to the site. Such sites can include pine, so coniferous forests can be classed as ancient, or sweet chestnut, forests of which I believe exist in Scotland. The soil under such trees is also significant.
People might ask, “Why worry about these small areas? Woods that are planted today will become ancient woodlands in 400 years’ time,” but it does not work that way. The way we are changing land use due to agriculture and industry means that the woods we plant today will never turn into the equivalent of the ancient forests of yesterday.
I thank my hon. Friend and London neighbour. My constituency has 1,400 ancient trees, but we have also had one of the UK’s first applications for shale gas fracking. Will she join me in pressing for a change to include ancient woodland in the protected areas specified by the new Government regulations?
My hon. Friend’s point is pertinent and one that I hope the Minister will take on board. Fracking in such areas would seriously disturb the glorious biodiversity and we should think seriously about protecting them. He makes an important point.
We might assume that something as precious as ancient woodland would already be protected, but that is not the case—although I am delighted that the Government have stated on many occasions their support for and appreciation of the value of ancient woodland and the need to protect it. Sites of special scientific interest offer protection, but they cover only 17% of ancient woodland. Some ancient woodland comes into areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, which give extra recognition, but they do not guarantee that the protection cannot be removed for other reasons. The planned High Speed 2 route, for example, threatens many areas of ancient woodland in the Chilterns AONB.
I thank my hon. Friend. A balance definitely needs to be struck between protecting our environment and the building necessary to get our economy moving. Does she agree that the balance we have at the moment seems to be skewed? Protections to ancient woodland in the national planning policy framework could do with being bolstered.
I thank my shrewd hon. Friend for his intervention, although I think he must have been looking over my shoulder, because I am coming to that point—he has hit the nail absolutely on the head. Unlike many other precious habitats, ancient woodland is not a statutory designation and therefore suffers from a lack of protection.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are going to build large infrastructure projects it is essential that we observe the national designations given to areas of land that include ancient woodland, such as the AONB in the Chilterns to which she referred? It makes a mockery of any environmental credentials or policy if we do not protect the nationally designated areas while going ahead with the project.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will address in a moment. She is right; if we cannot stand by the designations, we might ask what the point of having them is. I put that to the Minister.
I thought that the Minister responsible for forestry would reply to the debate, but I am pleased to see the Minister of State with responsibility for farming in his place. The whole of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is especially committed to trees and woodland, but the Forestry Minister admitted in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I was at the inquiry meeting at which he said this—that
“ancient woodland, as a category, is not a protected category”.
I am now coming on to what many of my hon. Friends are referring to—everything is about paragraph 118 of the national planning policy framework, which allows for the destruction or loss of
“ancient woodland and…aged or veteran trees”
“the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.
As a result of that loophole, as I would describe it, hundreds of ancient woodlands and trees are being lost or threatened in the planning system every single year. Since the national planning policy framework was introduced in March 2012, more than 40 ancient woods have suffered from loss or damage.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems in planning assessments is that much reliance is placed on professional reports and assessments of one kind or another that are challengeable, although they seem to persist from development to development with a life of their own? We need decision makers who will actually challenge such things and not allow them to take on a life of their own.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I will come on to later with reference to the idea of natural capital and how much value we put on the natural world versus development. The Woodland Trust is dealing with an incredible 560 threats to ancient woods; November saw the biggest escalation ever of the number of threats being registered—14 in one month, which is shocking. Threats can come from mineral extraction, installation of electricity or gas pipelines, housing, leisure proposals, roads, golf courses or even sites for war-gaming and paintballing.
Other ancient woodland areas are under threat from local area plans, which are falling through the net and we hardly know anything about. I have one such near me at Ash Priors, where houses were built on ancient woodland because the local plan could not really stand up for it. We do not know exactly how many ancient woods there are, let alone how many are threatened, because we rely on the dear old Woodland Trust to gather such data. I ask the Minister for a proper database to collate all such information, because then we would be on stronger ground.
Interestingly, the motion we are debating has not been far from the thoughts and considerations of others in this place. Only one year ago, in December 2014, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government called for ancient woodland to be awarded the same level of protection as designated heritage assets in the built environment, which include scheduled monuments, wreck sites, battlefields, and grade I and II listed buildings—my own house is grade II and, small and humble as it is, I cannot knock it down to build a road. Do my hon. Friends agree that the CLG Committee proposal seems eminently sensible?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on how she is presenting her powerful case. Ancient woodland exists not only in rural constituencies, but in urban areas such as Cheltenham and, as such, can be particularly precious to local communities. Does she agree that there is a powerful case for providing strong and explicit planning protection for ancient woodland, particularly in towns?
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. Some trees have preservation orders on them, but by no means all do. Trees in the urban environment, as I am sure the Minister will say, are important for things such as controlling rainwater and flooding, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and the feelgood factor of seeing a lovely tree as we walk past.
According to the Communities and Local Government Committee, the national planning policy framework ought to be amended. The Select Committee stated that any loss of ancient woodland should be termed as “wholly exceptional”—that is, it cannot be got rid of unless that is absolutely and utterly essential. I will be grateful to hear the Minister’s view of such a change, because ancient woods are national treasures. Scotland has a similar planning framework, but a slightly softer approach to trees and development. I will be pleased to hear about that later from the Scottish Members present.
The CLG Committee also called for an increase in the number of SSSIs covering ancient woodland, because that would surely help. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that proposal as well. In addition, we must not forget that we ought to thank many landowners for managing the SSSIs and to ensure that they have adequate funding to keep the woodland as it should be kept for the nation. The success of such woodland depends on that management. There is also real concern about the march of awful diseases such as chalara, or ash dieback, in ancient woods, which could present us with another threat to them in future.
I do not want to sound too much like a stick-in-the-mud, because I understand that we need a balance. On the one hand, we want to protect the environment and on the other we want a thriving economy, which the Government are pursuing positively and with great effect. However, I remind the Minister of the green infrastructure commitment in our manifesto in which we said that we would try to make our roads and developments more environmentally friendly. We need to start doing that somehow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) wanted to raise the issue of planning in particular, but she cannot be here. If we have to steamroller through a piece of ancient woodland because it is unavoidable, often the suggestion is to ameliorate the situation by planting trees elsewhere. She says that that is fine, but we need to take real care about how that is done. At Mixbury, HS2 will plough through some woodland, so it has been recommended that new trees are planted. However, guess where that will be? On a patch of ancient pasture! It is ridiculous that more thought was not put into that decision. I call for a much more sensible approach and for caution.
The spin-off of woods’ biodiversity value is their glorious, natural benefits, which we call natural capital. Should we put a value on our woods? We need to start thinking about that. They reward us in spades through making us feel good—by raising our spirits and inspiring us, as well as through their biodiversity. I know that the Government are thinking about that and that the Natural Capital Committee, which will report back shortly, is looking at setting an economic value on nature. That is tricky—no one says that is easy—but should we not apply that concept right now to ancient and veteran tree cover? That is a prime example of where it could be applied.
Natural capital is not an idea that Rebecca Pow has come up with; it is really being talked about. In January the Natural Capital Committee said that ancient trees are “priceless”. That is there in writing and that is the root of my debate.
The all-party group on ancient woodland was formed recently and I am pleased to be its chairman. Since its formation, I have been contacted by so many people who are at their wits’ end and want to know what to do about an area of threatened woodland near them. They are usually really passionate about these places. Whole communities will be campaigning to try to keep them, but they do not have the teeth to do it. These places are threatened by quarrying, roads and other such things, but as my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) asked, can we not try to work such thoughts into our development plans so that somehow we can have both?
I will give a few examples of threatened areas. Just last month, a proposal to destroy part of the beautiful and ancient Bluebell wood near Maidstone went through, with permission granted for housing without any recognition of the loss to nature, despite a huge local campaign. I have mentioned HS2 already and I think we might hear more examples about that. In the south-west, a pipeline in Torridge in Devon will go right through the Buck’s Valley wood. Mineral extraction in Dorset is going though Honeycomb and Downshay woods and ancient woodland between junctions 5 and 6 of the M42 near Solihull in the west midlands is threatened by an application for an extension to a service station—the list goes on and on.
I have raised a number of issues that I would like the Minister to consider. In particular, it would be great to get a database going. Will he also look at updating the standing advice for ancient woodland? Developers need to look at that advice to see whether what they are doing tallies up with Natural England’s instructions, but that barely covers matters. It needs to be updated for English planning authorities to include veteran trees and historic wood pasture, because sadly many developers are exploiting the advice.
I cannot stress strongly enough that once this glorious natural wonder is gone, it is gone—we cannot recreate it. Trees, as we all know, cannot speak for themselves—unless they are Ents in “The Lord of the Rings”, which I love—so I am speaking for them. At the rate we are going, soon none of this precious woodland will be left. Only 2% is left, which is so minuscule. How quickly could all that be whittled away?
I urge the Minister to consider my suggestions for ensuring that we do not get rid of all this woodland. We must give it some chance of surviving for hundreds more years. We need to deal with this root and branch. I urge him to give more consideration to the protection of our glorious, awe-inspiring ancient woodlands.
I am delighted to support the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who secured this debate on the protection of ancient woodlands and trees. We are all impressed with her passion for the countryside and rural and urban nature. She has raised my awareness of the ancient and veteran trees in my area: I had probably ignored it, but there are 65 ancient trees and 44% of my constituents live within 500 metres of ancient woodlands—I was not aware of that until I met the redoubtable Member.
I am fortunate to represent a constituency that has a great variety of accessible woodlands located close to its population centres. I will give a wee bit of background on my area and do as best I can—the hon. Lady is a difficult act to follow. The picturesque Callendar wood in Falkirk is at least 500 years old. The trees, woods and adjacent parkland were once the gardens and grounds of Callendar house, a family home for centuries. The wood probably evolved from a medieval hunting park, although there is also evidence of working forestry and coalmining. It is a complex, cultural woodland that is rich in archaeology and veteran trees. Through protection, it has become an island of archaeological preservation and biodiversity.
Torwood, also in my constituency, was a large forested area in the 12th century that stretched from the River Carron in the west and north towards Stirling and inland towards the Campsie fells. At that time it was traversed by an old Roman road, which I have walked many times with my dad, my brothers and my sisters over many years. In preparation for the battle of Bannockburn it was used as the encampment for the men of James Douglas, one of the leaders of King Robert the Bruce’s army. In the wood stood an oak tree that, allegedly, Bruce and William Wallace met under—they probably had a cup of tea or something similar—and which gave Wallace shelter. In 1680 the wood is said to have been the site of the excommunication of King Charles II by Donald Cargill.
My constituency is also blessed with the natural beauty of the Carron glen, which has a magnificent stretch of woodland with a beautiful, steep-sided gorge that supports a large tract of ancient deciduous woodland. I spent most of my childhood in the glen, swimming in the Red Brae and the Black Lynn, probably climbing over ancient dykes and generally mucking about. It was a natural place where I could go and enjoy myself and it will never be forgotten. To this day it is a site of special scientific interest that should be preserved at all costs. It supports oak, birch, alder, goat willow and ash, as well as a variety of woodland flora. We now have otters frequenting the area. If someone sits there long enough, they will see deer walking past in the same area. It is an absolutely outstanding, peaceful area of tranquillity.
Not far from that is a tree locally referred to as a Spanish chestnut tree. Its actual species is not known for certain; we are still investigating that. That tree is the symbol of the Denny and Dunipace Heritage Society, of which myself and Charles McAteer—not the Charles mentioned earlier—were founder members. The tree is more than 400 years old and was part of the Herbertshire estate owned by the Forbes family. The castle on the estate was burnt to the ground in 1914—I was not around at that time, before the hon. Member for Taunton Deane says anything. The tree is still standing and is still known locally as the “hanging tree”.
A number of local conservation groups help to protect the ancient trees and woodland in my constituency, such as the Communities Along the Carron Association, which is run by a group of local volunteers who are committed to the regeneration of the River Carron, its communities and its ancient land. It is led by a remarkable woman called Christine Bell. There is also the local Community Green Initiative, which is run by a group of volunteers. One of its aims is to ensure that the woodland areas are kept litter-free and accessible for everyone. That group is extremely active, with all the schools across Falkirk using the local woodlands. This is about looking to the future and the long term.
As a keen cyclist and walker, I have taken full advantage of those natural amenities. I am well aware that woodlands ancient and modern are more than a source of timber, more than a habitat of flora and fauna and more than a pleasant vista. Although they are and should continue to be all those things, they are also a destination for all groups, families and communities to enjoy. The protection of this natural asset is vital. Ancient woodland is our richest habitat for wildlife and is home to more threatened species than any other habitat. It represents the last fragments of the wildwood that once covered all of the UK thousands of years ago.
When I was doing some research this morning, I came across an article by Scottish Natural Heritage on hen harriers, which are a rare bird of prey. There were only 505 pairs left at the time of the last survey, in 2010, and another survey will be done next year. Those birds leave the highlands of Scotland and come down south for the winter. We are still not sure where they go, but if we cut down these trees, they will not go there again; that is a certainty. We need to be mindful of that at all times.
Our ancient woodland has now diminished to a fraction of its former extent. We have lost forever an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage. The nation’s remaining ancient woodlands are increasingly under threat from development. As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane mentioned, the Woodland Trust reports that it has responded to 14 cases of woods under threat in just the last month and is currently dealing with a total of 561 such cases. That is an unacceptable number of threats, and I do not know how the Woodland Trust will cope. There is a genuine increase in threats to ancient woodland, and the UK Government are simply not doing enough about it.
I can give the hon. Gentleman a brief answer, but I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) will answer that later. The Scottish Government have developed a policy direction for decisions on woodland removal in Scotland and will apply the policy to decisions within the areas of competence. Unlike England, Scotland has an ancient woodland inventory, to which the hon. Member for Taunton Deane referred. We are making progress. There is a lot more information to read, which I advise hon. Members to do. We can all learn lessons from one another. This is not a political matter; it is about doing the best we can.
Within my constituency, more than 7.5% of the ancient woodland is under threat, while more than 40% of constituents live near woodland. That amounts to only 15.6% of woodland, old and new, which is quite scary. However, the quantity of ancient woodland under threat is not the only issue; the irreplaceable nature of that woodland is the significant point. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane mentioned a Fortingall tree earlier of between 3,000 and 3,500 years old, which I have visited many times. It is believed that Pontius Pilate was born underneath it—never let the facts get in the way of the truth. In Scotland, we define ancient woodland as having existed since around 1750 AD, so what takes minutes to cut down takes centuries to grow. The loss is immeasurable; imagine cutting down the Fortingall tree.
Existing protection for ancient woodland is insufficient. The UK Government have stated on many occasions their support for and appreciation of the value of ancient woodland and the need to protect it. In Scotland, as I mentioned, we are making significant efforts to change that and address these problems, although we are not without our problems. Unlike many precious habitats, however, ancient woodland is not a statutory designation in law and therefore suffers from a lack of protection.
The Minister responsible for forestry, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for whom I have a lot of time—he is an excellent guy who knows his brief exceedingly well—recently admitted:
“ancient woodland, as a category, is not a protected category”.
That is quite a statement.
Paragraph 118 of the national planning policy framework allows for the destruction or loss of ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees if
“the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.
That is a total contradiction, because we can never get that woodland back. As a result of that loophole, hundreds of ancient woods and trees are lost or threatened in the planning system every year. Since the NPPF was introduced in March 2012, more than 40 ancient woods across the UK have suffered loss or damage from development. Hundreds more ancient woods are at risk within areas of land allocated for development through site allocations as part of local plans. As admitted by the Forestry Minister under the previous Administration, the Government do not collect data relating to the loss of trees and woods, so a complete picture of the scale of losses in any given year is currently impossible—I totally agree with the hon. Member for Taunton Deane on that.
In December last year, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government called for ancient woodland to be awarded the same level of protection as designated heritage assets—that includes the house owned by the hon. Member for Taunton Deane. The Committee also called for work to be undertaken to increase the number of ancient woods with statutory designations, to further increase protection. However, in response to the Committee’s report, the Government ruled out changing the wording, arguing that
“existing protection for ancient woodland in the Framework is strong and it is very clear that development of these areas should be avoided.”
Again, that seems a wee bit contradictory. I urge the Government to follow the Communities and Local Government Committee’s recommendations.
In addition to the previously mentioned comments, the Forestry Minister went on to say that
“an enormous amount of our ancient woodland is already protected within our national parks and within AONBs. A lot of it is covered by natural sites under European legislation and a lot of it is protected under SSSI legislation.”
In a response to a parliamentary question on 23 November, corrected on 24 November, the Forestry Minister set out how much ancient woodland is in fact located within designated areas:
“Natural England estimates that 15% of ancient woodland is located within national parks and 30% is located within areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). In national parks, 29% of this woodland has site of special scientific interest (SSSI) status; in AONBs, 13% of this woodland has SSSI status.”
Unfortunately, while some ancient woodland is indeed located within a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty, that is simply not good enough protection to ensure ancient woodland is not impacted by or lost to development. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who mentioned the issue of fracking in such areas.
The HS2 route, as has been mentioned, is a notable example of woodland located within designated areas being threatened by development. Although I do not know it, the Chilterns is an area of outstanding natural beauty, well known throughout the world. Another example provided by the Woodland Trust is a hydroelectric scheme currently being proposed in north Wales at Fairy Glen near Betws-y-Coed—are there any Welsh Members here?
Thanks. No one can contradict me.
The scheme threatens to damage the ancient woodland located in the Snowdonia national park. The Cairngorms national park local development plan expressly backs potential development sites that could cause damage to ancient woodland, including at An Camas Mòr, Carrbridge and Nethy Bridge. Indeed, in 2014 the installation of a micro-hydroelectric turbine in the Cairngorms was approved, which could also damage ancient woodland.
I could go on and list more examples of ancient woodlands in designated areas that have been removed or are threatened by development. I think everyone in the room shares the concerns of the hon. Member for Taunton Deane about such matters, and I go along with her too. I am happy to support her as best I possibly can. I had more to say, but I think I have spoken for long enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). I looked up his biography, as he is a new Member of the House, and I understand that he was a barber in a former life, so he will probably well know that his predecessors had their instruments forged from charcoal that came from our ancient woodland. In a way, his calling is linked to the woodlands that he has been speaking so eloquently about. I am also so glad that he has learnt about his constituency. I can honestly say that it does not matter how long he is here in the House, he will never stop learning—I learn something new every week about my constituency.
What a pleasure it is to have my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) be successful in securing the debate. I congratulate her not only on securing it, but on the way in which she introduced the subject. She is, of course, a new Member of the House. She has worked with the National Farmers Union for a while and is a trustee of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. However, she also brought her skills as a journalist to her powerful descriptions, as she walked us through the wonderlands of her childhood. She reminded me of my childhood in Wales, when I used to be taken for holidays to my uncle’s farm near Usk and I would play in the woodlands, which were charmingly called the Dingle. I used to think that I could get lost in those woods, and that nobody could find me—but the Dingle was a pretty small standing of trees, so I reckon that if someone had been really looking for me, they would have been able to find me.
I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend introduced the subject, because I seem to have been in touch with the Woodland Trust, which we are all so proud of, for at least 22 of my 23 years in the House. I need to declare an interest in that under her chairmanship, I am a vice-chair of the all-party group on ancient woodland and veteran trees, and I am pleased to be so.
I first came across the Woodland Trust some 22 years ago, when a substantial woodland in my constituency, Penn wood, came under threat. A six-year battle commenced when planning permission was granted for a golf club. Many of the people who lived in and around the area got very hot under the collar about that use of that precious area of woodland, which is so distinctive of the Chilterns and the Chiltern hills. After all, much of our industry and business used to come from the woodlands and the beech woods that surround the area, which is famous for its furniture-making.
Over the six years, the Woodland Trust had to have a national appeal to raise the phenomenal sum of £1.2 million that was needed to secure the whole wood. It was finally successful in doing so in 1999. The funding came from all sorts of sources, but particularly important at the time was the grant made by the Heritage Lottery Fund of £288,000, which was one of the largest. Local residents raised over £200,000 to help the trust finally to purchase the wood. Interestingly enough, five gifts were left in people’s wills. So important were the woods to people in the Chilterns that they were willing to put those specific legacies into their wills to ensure that the woods would be there, in perpetuity, for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In securing the whole 436-acre site, we have been able to ensure that the wood is now a powerful part of local recreation and local facilities, which are available not just to people who live around the woods, but to people who come out to the Chilterns for recreation, particularly Londoners. They take the Metropolitan line out to Metro-land, then nip off it and go out into the Chiltern hills and the area of outstanding natural beauty.
The 15th anniversary of Penn wood showed the many things that can be done with woodlands, with some tremendous activities including children’s environmental games, woodland art and fire-lighting. More excitingly, the Woodland Trust was able to show the removal of trees with heavy horses, which is something we have long lost, but which is still being retained in heritage works locally. It is rather wonderful for children to see how woodland was managed long before we had those terrible machines that make a lot of noise and chew logs and wood up into tiny little bits to be used on gardens or pathways.
There are more ongoing plans for the wood, and the investment that the Woodland Trust has made in it has really paid dividends. In fact, I was in the woods recently with the Woodland Trust; we were looking at the first stage of a £200,000 investment in Penn and Common woods in Buckinghamshire which is helping to make the woods more accessible. I looked at some of the new surfaced pathways, the existing surface tracks and the link that had been introduced. That is really exciting, because it is making the woods accessible to people who are disabled and people using wheelchairs. That is a very important move, because it means that the woods are accessible to all.
Once again, the Heritage Lottery Fund, which deserves a great deal of praise in this area, has come up with £68,800. The Veolia Environmental Trust has put a considerable sum of nearly £35,000 towards the improvements that are being made to the wood. With grants from the Forestry Commission, which are really important, it has been possible to continue the programme of improvement, including improving the signage, including in various places an interpretation of the woods for people visiting them. That makes it a tremendous experience for anybody coming out to see Penn wood.
There is a lot more work to be done on Penn wood. I think it is important that work is done on the history of the woods, and I know that the Woodland Trust has plans to look more into the historical usage of the woods. However, that takes me from the large wood that has been saved by raising a large amount of money and which will be an ongoing project, hopefully in perpetuity, to one of the latest little projects on woodland in my constituency. I had the pleasure of visiting it the other day—it is called the Little Chalfont nature park.
The Little Chalfont nature park is a small area of land that lies between some houses and the Little Chalfont library and which has been bought by the community. I had a terrific visit there, with the chair of trustees of the Little Chalfont Charitable Trust, Roger Funk, and three of his compatriots, Gill Roberts, Rob Rolls and Mandy Rooke. Mandy has been a key member of the team that is saving this piece of land for the community and contributing to the design. The area is only small, but it means that a nature park is being created actually in the heart of the village of Little Chalfont. It is being done partly from original, preserved natural grassland, but it also contains a beautiful, small piece of woodland, which is being gradually restored and made accessible to people in Little Chalfont and any visitors who want to come.
The nature park is not open yet, but it will be in 2016. Once it is fully opened, I hope that everybody will be able to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed my visit. We can all help, of course, by going on to the website for the Little Chalfont nature park and making a contribution, because nothing comes free in this day and age. If people can help to support that, we will have, in the heart of a small village in the Chilterns, yet another piece of preserved woodland together with a nature park that had me spellbound when visiting, because it contains such a wide variety of fungi, flowers and features. On the edge are the old clay pits, from which the brickworks excavated the clay to make bricks locally. There is a tiny bit of the cherry orchard that used to belong to the original Snells farm. There are the amazing mounds that were the edges of the wood, which have all been revealed by some heavy-duty work by volunteers, who are also cataloguing exactly what is contained in the heart of the village. I think that it will be a very good addition.
Our woodlands are not just places to visit. I also have in my constituency some 72 acres of woodland that is now the GreenAcres woodland burials site. It is a living, active woodland in which burials are taking place and where people can appreciate the peace, quiet, tranquillity and elements of nature that contribute to the end-of-life experience for their loved ones, which I think makes it a very special place. We must remember that we are talking not about fossilised bits of land or areas that we are protecting just out of stubbornness, but about living woods that right up to this day provide a service to the community.
That is why I feel so passionate about the woodlands that are being affected by HS2. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane referred to HS2, and I would not speak in a debate such as this without referring to HS2. It is predictable, but that does not make it any the less important. The Government really need to listen to the issues being raised about the destruction of woodland through the development of infrastructure. None of us here is a philistine. We want infrastructure to be built. We want this country to progress. We want a solid and firm economy. However, that must not be at the price of some of our most fragile and precious landscapes, which is what is happening with HS2.
Having said that, I have some praise, not particularly for the Government but certainly for the HS2 hybrid Bill Committee, because it has granted yet another extension to the Chilterns tunnel. The Minister should know that that extension means that Mantle’s wood, Sibley’s coppice and Farthings wood have all been saved from the bulldozer. Sitting in the middle of Mantle’s wood, I shed a tear when I thought that HS2 was going to devastate and demolish most of that wood, which people have been walking in for centuries. However, the area of outstanding natural beauty that is most of my constituency is still exposed to HS2. Jones’ Hill wood, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), will lose about 0.7 hectares. Although the impact has been reduced by the plans currently on the drawing board, it will still be affected. Other ancient woodlands in the AONB will be indirectly affected by the works or are directly adjacent to the construction boundary and will be damaged. I am referring to Jenkins wood, Havenfield wood, Stockings wood and Oaken corner.
A Government who have been rightly trumpeting their environmental credentials should now step up to the plate and ensure that they go the whole mile and protect the whole of the AONB and those ancient woodlands against HS2. That may cost a little more, but the costs are in doubt and arguable. It is possible from an engineering standpoint and certainly desirable to tunnel the whole of HS2 under the AONB and come out without damaging the AONB, as will be the case with the current plans.
I have some amazing constituents who have been working on the issue of HS2. It is always an unequal battle, because whereas the Government have access to taxpayers’ money and have already spent some £14.5 million on legal fees alone—paying lawyers—on HS2, my constituents, who after all are only fighting to protect their homes, land and businesses and the environment of the Chiltern hills, have to raise every penny voluntarily. There is no Heritage Lottery Fund for them. There are no grants coming from any esteemed bodies. They have to raise every single penny and pay out of their back pockets not only for the luxury of being heard at the petition stage in the hybrid Bill Committee—they all have to pay £20 to put their piece of paper in—but to get the advice that they need.
One of my constituents is a tremendous landscape historian. Alison Doggett has studied a 500-year-old map and revealed that the Misbourne valley, across which HS2 will slash a swathe, has barely changed since medieval times. She described her work in an article called “A Lost Valley?” in the May 2014 edition of the BBC’s Countryfile magazine, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, from her previous life, is familiar with. The ancient map was drawn up in 1620 for Dame Mary Wolley, who owned the Chequers estate, which in those days included the northern part of the Misbourne valley. Nowadays, as everyone knows, Chequers is the Prime Minister’s rural retreat. It is vastly diminished. The current boundaries of the estate do not encompass the original, historical boundaries of the older Chequers estate.
Alison’s comparison of the field boundaries, woodlands, lanes and farmsteads as depicted in 1620 has shown that in many cases very little has changed. Thanks to the good stewardship of the people who have lived in the area and worked the land, and its status as part of a nationally protected landscape—the AONB—since 1965, any visitor today will find the valley very little changed from 1620. Unfortunately, the merits of good stewardship and national protection through the AONB have been ignored by the HS2 project. I therefore ask that the Minister and his Department, which is crucial to the protection of our environment, ask the Department for Transport to step up to the plate, protect that AONB and go for the long tunnel, which will protect the ancient woodlands to which I have referred so that they are still a valuable part of the landscape.
I will give Alison Doggett the last word, because her article concludes:
“Landscapes are granted protected status for characteristics that make them unique. The protection ensures we tread lightly so that we may share the landscapes with future generations, just as past generations shared them with us. We need to ask why protections on historical landscapes are being overturned. Is this trampling of our rural inheritance part of a bigger picture: a calculated indifference to the value of countryside in the name of progress?”
I hope that the answer to that question is no and that the Minister’s Department will go and champion the area of outstanding natural beauty and our ancient woodlands in the Chilterns.
It is a great pleasure to appear before a fellow member of the Hampshire caucus, Mr Turner.
“Rapunzel was the most beautiful child in the world. When she was 12 years old, the witch shut her up in a tower in the midst of a wood.”
“When Little Red Riding Hood entered the woods, a wolf came up to her; she did not know what a wicked animal he was and was not afraid of him.”
“At last, the Queen said to the huntsman, ‘Take Snow White out into the woods, so that I might set eyes on her no more. You must put her to death and bring me her heart as a token.’”
Those stories are universal. They evoke in us a sense of mystery and a shiver. It is no coincidence that they are all set in the subject of today’s debate: ancient woods, dark and forbidding. To the brothers Grimm, those old forests set the boundaries of human control. The world has changed, but while the whirlwind of human life has careered on, the same ancient woodlands have stood, silently watching. We feel smaller next to them and humbled by their age—feelings not often associated with our modern times. Untouched by us, ancient woodlands are the perfect antithesis of our technologically advanced, man-made world.
Today, science says that everything is explicable, and it may well be right. We are not entirely built that way, however. Somehow, we are healthier when nature is visible and in our lives. Our ancient woodlands will always hold wonder for us, and they are a reminder that no matter how far our knowledge and understanding progress, there is always the chance of getting lost and not knowing the way. We should do our best to preserve that sense, for it is part of what makes us human.
Many Members have focused, and no doubt others will focus, on the biological and environmental value of woodlands, and they are right to do so. Those environments are complex and unspoiled, and they provide habitats for wildlife and rare species. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) has said, they cannot be recreated if they are destroyed. If I may, however, I will leave that aspect to others and focus on the role that ancient woodlands play in our national psyche and our relationship to our history, and on the effect on our psychology of our ever-growing command of the natural world, even if we only rarely notice it or get the chance to experience it.
As the fairy tales that I quoted illustrate, it cannot be denied that those ancient woodlands stir something deep within us—something that we would be foolish to lose. But we are already losing it. As others have said, the Woodland Trust is already ringing alarm bells. It states that we have lost some 1,000 hectares of ancient woodland in the last decade, and that some 500 sites are threatened by planned development. We will lose it all if we do not take measures now, when there is urgency in our building for various reasons, to ensure that we meet our housing and infrastructure needs responsibly. Do we really want to see those living links to our history destroyed to make way for golf courses and paintballing? In my constituency, 60% of which is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, we certainly do not.
No one really planned how we got here. We barrelled forward, not knowing what lay ahead, and never stopped along the way to take account of what we had left behind. Many prophesied—rightly or wrongly, for good or ill—what would happen, but life went on. Jobs have become more specialised and technology has improved. Our population has grown; the demand for land has grown with it and continues to grow. It has brought us to this. As grassy hills and wooded glens become rarer and suburbs sprawl, we risk losing sight of what we actually value. Few would say that the ancient woodlands, the protection of which we discuss today, are not important, but it is far too easy to get caught up in the processes that put them in danger.
The crux of the matter is that failure to protect this ancient treasure will turn us into the kind of country that we do not want to be. It will not have escaped hon. Members that the quotes with which I began my speech came from the brothers Grimm, and that they spoke of forests in Germany; just as in our legends, the forests have deep value in German culture. However, the Germans recognise that value by having the most protected woods in Europe. It has never been more pressing for us to follow their example.
Our forests have borne witness to our island’s history. They have seen war and peace, the sparks of invention, the birth of our democracy and the scores of generations who made them happen and made Britain what it is today. The very youngest of those woodlands were born in a Britain that would—apart from the Misbourne valley—be unrecognisable today. They remind us that we come and go, but there are countless generations behind us and countless more ahead of us.
We know that we have a debt to past generations and a duty to those in the future. Natural treasures such as our ancient woodland are evidence of that connection and contract. If we lose them, life will be less rich, our experience of the world a little bit more desolate and our society more disconnected from itself. If we become the kind of country that takes no notice of such things, or that shrugs and says that we can merely offset the loss by planting more somewhere else, no summer’s bloom will lie ahead of us. To do so would be to accept a Britain where we had broken cleanly with our past and our heritage. The mystery would have gone, and we would be diminished.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing the debate and giving such a passionate and entertaining speech.
My constituency, Cannock Chase, takes its name from the beautiful landscape that was designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty in 1958. A large part of the chase is made up of natural deciduous woodland and coniferous plantations. Trees are an important part of the chase AONB landscape—how it looks, the views and the history of the place—and they are an important habitat for the birds in the area.
Only last Friday, I joined the AONB team on a tour of the chase, which gave me an opportunity to see at first hand the wide variety in the landscape and habitat, and to discuss many of the challenges of balancing the human use of the chase and the protection of the natural environment. I want to take this opportunity to commend the team from the AONB and thank them for that tour.
Despite the fact that a large part of my constituency is made up of forest—perhaps I should say trees—it contains a relatively small number of areas of ancient woodland. There are more in the seat of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), with whom I discussed this topic earlier today. One of the few ancient sites in my constituency is Chetwynd coppice, which is just outside the village of Brereton. Interestingly, we do not know where all the ancient trees are, because they have not all been identified yet, but some keen volunteers have expressed a wish to seek them out.
Ancient trees in woodlands are more than just plants: they reflect the landscape and tell stories about the culture of a place and the people around them. We have heard from fellow Members today about the various benefits of ancient woodlands and the real dangers that they face from construction and development. Green spaces such as forests, woodlands and ancient woodlands provide real social benefits and improve humans’ physical and mental wellbeing. I will take a few moments to discuss that topic.
Cannock Chase attracts tourists from far and wide, as well as being enjoyed by locals. Whether you are a keen walker, cyclist, runner or horse rider, Mr Turner, there are plenty of activities on offer across the chase. Birches valley, just outside Rugeley, is home to Go Ape and Swinnerton Cycles. In the summer of this year, Cannock Chase hosted the cycling leg of the inaugural Staffordshire Ironman 70.3.
With tourism come challenges, however, as the team from the Cannock Chase AONB discussed with me on Friday. Although we must encourage people to enjoy our natural environment, whether it be forests, woodlands or even ancient woodlands, it is imperative that we do so in a responsible way. In Birches valley, the Forestry Commission has worked hard to manage tourism by signposting visitors to trails and paths to ensure that they can enjoy the area without the natural habitat and its inhabitants, which include a herd of fallow deer, being unduly affected by tourism. I understand that the Forestry Commission has undertaken work on the dangers of tree and plant disease for the long-term sustainability of the woodland landscape, which will be all-important to protecting commercial forestry and the much-loved ancient woodlands of the chase. One of the key parts of protection from such diseases is ensuring that professionals and the public stick to some basic biosecurity measures such as washing boots when they come in after being out for a walk.
Like many of the residents of Cannock Chase, I am passionate about the chase. It is not surprising that the idea that Staffordshire County Council might sell off its land was met with a public outcry. I welcome the news that the current county council’s consultation on the management of the Staffordshire countryside estate recognised that outcry, and that it is looking into maintaining the current management and ownership arrangements, which it sees as the most appropriate option. I encourage residents to take part in the ongoing consultation regarding the management of country parks to ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear.
Ancient woodland and areas of outstanding natural beauty are important national assets and hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. Although visitors and tourism to those areas provide real benefits to our local economies, we must ensure that we balance that with the need to protect and conserve the areas for future generations. We must ensure that our ancient trees live on.
Thank you, Mr Turner, for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I, as one of the last of the Back-Bench contributors, have the great pleasure of congratulating all those who have spoken before me, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has done a wonderful job not only of securing the debate, but of alerting other right hon. and hon. Members to the fact that it was going to take place. It has certainly been very well attended so far.
I note that until very recently the Scottish National party was well represented in this debate. I understand that the party is not fully represented at the moment, for good reasons, and I know that it is the long-term aim of its Members to cease to be represented entirely at Westminster. All I can say is that, while they are here, their contributions to our debates are greatly appreciated.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) managed to marry with the topic of this debate the relentless and gallant campaign that she has been waging to preserve so much of our precious rural heritage against the depredations of HS2. I am sure that this phase of her parliamentary career will be well remembered by future generations who benefit from the restrictions and reductions in the devastation that building HS2 along its original planned route would otherwise have inflicted. Those reductions are greatly to be welcomed, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend has many more in mind before she desists.
My hon. Friends the Members for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) embodied something that I have noticed about the whole debate. We are all used to having fraught debates and arguments in this Chamber and in the main Chamber of the House, but something seemed to come over every contributor to this debate as soon as they became involved and engrossed in the topic: a quality of content and delivery that was almost poetic. That speaks to the vital importance not only physically, but psychologically, of our valued, treasured and wonderful ancient woodlands to the people who have the privilege of enjoying them.
I understand that the definition that woodlands must meet to qualify as ancient is that the site must have existed since at least 1600 AD. Given that the New Forest dates from 1079, it clearly qualifies very easily, although it must be borne in mind that it is called the New Forest precisely because it was a creation by man to supply fresh meat to William the Conqueror and his entourage. Hence, the term “new” in our history means approaching merely 1,000 years old, which I suppose is new on some basis of terminology.
The networks of woodland in and around the New Forest collectively form one of the largest extents of lowland forest remaining in western Europe. I am indebted to the New Forest National Park Authority for providing me with a briefing on some of the main aspects of what I am about to say. There are 4,800 hectares of the ancient and ornamental woodlands in the Open Forest alone and there are many privately owned fragments within the New Forest national park boundary. While their communities of plants and animals, many now rare, are an echo of the prehistoric wildwoods that covered much of Britain, they have since been uniquely shaped by farmers, commoners, local people, livestock and wild animals, resulting in the complex landscape and ecological patterns that we see today.
About 1,500 ancient or veteran trees have been recorded so far in the New Forest, most within the ancient and ornamental woodlands in the heart of the New Forest, but many on private land. Those trees have a feeling of great age and character, with gnarled and twisted trunks, crevices and hollows and a large girth, some more than 8 metres around—hon. Members can tell that I did not draft those words myself, as I would have been most unlikely to have used metres rather than more traditional measures. Oaks and ash trees will be at least 400 years old, while yews can live for over 1,000 years.
The character of the New Forest has been well summed up by Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, who is not only the current chairman of the New Forest National Park Authority, but a distinguished former official verderer of the New Forest. In connection with the topic we are debating, he said to me:
“The New Forest is believed to have one of the largest extents of Ancient Woodland in Western Europe. Immensely old, and full of character, some of the ancient trees within these woodlands are especially rare. Our Ancient Woodlands have been sculpted by man, revered by generations of local people and survived through remarkable changes in the world around them. They are unique and cannot be replaced. In the New Forest we are working together to protect, enhance and manage our Ancient Woodlands; they are such an important part of our living, working landscape and we want them to remain so for future generations.”
For people in the modern age, ancient woodlands are a retreat from hustle and bustle—somewhere it is possible to find peace and inspiration, and to get closer to nature. There is strong evidence supporting the idea that the use and enjoyment of woodlands improves people’s overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, they have been described as a natural health service.
Although the UK was covered in woodland 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, woodland now covers only about 2% of the land area of the UK. That is why it is so vital that it must be protected for future generations. There is not only the question of the physical destruction of ancient woodland, but a risk of tree pests and diseases entering the country from abroad, as well as non-native invasive plants that spread within woodlands and put native wildlife at risk. Natural England estimates that 15% of ancient woodland is located within national parks and 30% is located within areas of outstanding natural beauty. In national parks, 29% of the woodland has site of special scientific interest status, as does 13% of woodland in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
One thing I have found, as a city boy who was fortunate enough to be selected to represent a wonderful rural constituency, is that for all the peace, tranquillity and beauty of the gorgeous New Forest, it is not without controversy. There are many organisations and people with a long history of interest and participation in the activities of the New Forest. I think I am right in saying that, of all the national parks, the New Forest is the most densely populated.
Among the commentators with long experience and great reputation on matters concerning the New Forest is Mr Anthony Pasmore, who regularly writes an expert column in the local press on current affairs affecting the welfare of the forest environment. He has drawn to my attention the danger of trying to be what could almost be described as “too naturalistic” in the conservation of the forest. For example, when we have storms—as inevitably occur from time to time—that cause windfall destruction of parts of the forest, ancient and not so ancient, there is now a tendency to leave all the fallen trees where they lie. I understand that, traditionally, it has always been understood that some 20% of windfall trees should be left behind to create beneficial habitats for beetles and other wildlife. There is always a slight tension between trying to interfere to the minimum amount necessary and remembering that the New Forest is a living, working forest. He raised with me the fact that there is an almost blanket ban on the withdrawing and removal of tree debris following such destruction, which is actually making the forest less habitable and less accessible to human beings by overdoing the environment that one wishes to preserve for the beetles and other wildlife.
My right hon. Friend is waxing so lyrical and making such a good point that I cannot resist joining in. Many of these ancient woods are not just old relics with rotting wood; they are managed landscapes, many of which have been coppiced over time so that man can use the wood for other purposes. These ancient woodlands are still valuable, and I am sure that large tracts of the New Forest are included in that.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
That is precisely the point that I was endeavouring to make, and my hon. Friend makes it with far greater fluency than my poor efforts.
Anthony Pasmore draws attention to the fact that the New Forest is just that: it is ancient, but it is also new. It is what it is because, as he puts it, there is a “question of balance”. There has to be a question of balance between letting nature take its course and managing the forest in such ways as go with the grain of beauty and accessibility, rather than always trying to take too rigid a stance, which might inhibit the ability of the community that lives and works there to enjoy the New Forest. Those are secondary issues; the most important fact is that we have this wonderful asset.
I shall conclude with a rather modern controversy, namely, the possibility of hydraulic fracturing taking place underneath a national park at some stage. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham about how it is possible to preserve and save woodlands by driving tunnels deep beneath them, and therefore, in principle, it might well be possible to extract valuable energy assets from a long way below the surface even of sensitive areas. We know that hydraulic fracturing may well yield great dividends for our country’s economy, but there are plenty of parts of the United Kingdom where we can master the technology long before we need to bring it anywhere near those particularly precious areas that have been designated as national parks. This is my appeal: the Government should by all means explore fracking technology, but they should make sure that they know what they are doing, by practice and by developing a successful industry based on hydraulic fracturing in less sensitive areas of the country, before approaching anywhere near our ancient woodlands and national parks.
Mr Walker, you have just missed a consensual and uplifting debate. Mr Turner and I sit on the European Scrutiny Committee, and if only that Committee were equally consensual and uplifting on occasion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally)—he has gone off to catch a train, and not of the high-speed variety—on securing this debate, which has been a most uplifting experience. The hon. Lady kicked us off with a truly evocative and passionate speech that drove home why we are having this debate: the power, beauty and importance of our natural environment. She outlined a powerful case for special recognition for ancient woodland and called for a much more sensible approach.
The good news is that we have an eminently sensible Minister before us today—as the Scottish National party’s DEFRA spokesman, I am used to standing up and making requests of him—although it is unfortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has responsibility for forests, could not be here today. He is my neighbouring MP, and he has a very valid reason for not being here, because of the level of flooding in his constituency, but I am sure he would be delighted for the Minister, in his absence, to commit him heavily to far greater protection of our ancient woodland. I look forward to the Minister’s positive response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk told us a lot about his history and the role of woodland in his life and in his community. I sense that he has many a personal story of his courting days beneath the canopy that perhaps might be better exchanged in the Sports and Social than in Westminster Hall, but he made a number of excellent supportive points, including highlighting one or two things that we specifically do in Scotland.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) gave a wonderful overview of the central role that woodland can play in our communities when protected and fostered. She also highlighted the dangers of HS2 and the impact it could have on our landscape if we get our priorities wrong. She also put in a most excellent, yet shameless, plug for a community cause in her constituency, which is always a good way to end a week in Westminster.
The hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) did something that I would not have thought possible, which was to get Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White into a speech. That set the tone for another excellent, evocative and moving contribution. I apologise to the following two speakers because a different call of nature meant that I missed elements of their speeches. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) made an important point about visiting a woodland site, and those of us who are involved in setting policy should always remember to go and understand the beauty and impact of such environments first hand—I thank her for making that point. I apologise to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for missing the start of his speech, but he correctly reflected on the consensual nature of this debate and on the psychological benefits of the very woodland that we are discussing today, regardless of whether we measure it in feet, metres or yards.
Across the country, our ancient woodlands are more than just a component of our landscape; they are part of its very soul. They go beyond living history; as we have heard, their importance to biodiversity makes them part of our breathing history too. Our connection with them is long, deep and emotional. Writing in 1936, slightly before my time, the chronicler Arthur Mee talked of our old trees in the introductory volume to his great book series “The King’s England”:
“Silent sentinels of the simple pageant of our nation’s life, they saw the knight come back from the Holy Land…they gave their bows to the men who fought at Agincourt.”
Those words are of their time, but they convey the affection that we all still feel for our woodlands, which cover 500,000 hectares, or just 2% of the UK. Roughly half that coverage needs restoration to safeguard its cultural and natural heritage for future generations. In Scotland, the geographical area taken up is rather less—1% of the land is covered by native species—but the Scottish tree is just as important and loved as the English, Welsh or Northern Irish one. That reminds me: a Northern Ireland Member asked me to point out—if hon. Members will allow me a slight educational aside—that the wonderful ancient trees that we witness on “Game of Thrones” are in Northern Ireland.
Ancient woodland is just that: very old indeed. As we have heard, the Fortingall yew in Perthshire is perhaps the oldest tree in the UK. Modern experts estimate it to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, but some think it could be far older, possibly even 5,000 years old. I hope that we never decide to cut it to find out for sure. Our woodlands have been under threat for almost as long as humankind has populated Scotland, or indeed other parts of the UK. By the year 82, at the time of Scotland’s invasion by the Roman legions, at least half had disappeared due to the demands of early agriculture. Since then, weather conditions have been cooler and wetter, meaning that much of the woodland has been replaced by peatland. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the remaining woods were heavily exploited for timber, charcoal and tanbark.
It is clear that our ancient woodlands have always faced a fragile and precarious existence. As speakers in this debate have pointed out, the risk of erosion of that valuable heritage continues, most particularly because of urban growth and transport schemes. New road developments and High Speed 2 pose ongoing threats, although the latter does not apply in Scotland. Future high-speed rail in particular may well be damaging; the Woodland Trust suggests that it will result in direct loss to 39 ancient woodlands and damage to 23 sites. Woodlands present remarkably diverse ecosystems, are hugely valued for their wildlife and are of significant cultural value. Plus, of course, they are integral parts of our landscapes and natural vistas of often compelling beauty. Their role in raising the human spirit cannot be underestimated.
It has been estimated that some 28,000 hectares of ancient woodland have been lost since the 1930s. That is a huge impoverishment in every way. The one bit of good news is that it is probably harder than ever for developers and farming interests to exploit our remaining assets. However, it is not impossible, and I sincerely hope that Government plans to allow developers to build in the green belt will not lead to cherry-picking of the best sites and new threats to our woodland heritage. It is also a matter of concern that there is no central Government database of ancient woodland, and that no recent analysis has been undertaken of how much has been lost. That needs to be addressed.
North of the border, forestry is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and ancient woodland is defined as an area that has been wooded continuously since 1750. As in England, there is no statutory protection, but there is a clear intent to preserve if at all possible.
Therein lies the difference in approach between the UK and Scotland. In the jurisdiction of Scotland, which prefers statutory certainty to convention and presumption, it is actually a series of conventions and presumptions that give planning authorities more tools to resist the felling of ancient woodlands. The Scottish Government produce planning guidance and a whole range of other documents. Does my hon. Friend agree—I say this in a spirit of cross-party co-operation—that even if the Government are not minded to confer statutory protection on ancient woodlands, there are a series of other techniques that could be used?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent, long and valuable contribution. In fairness, he has earned the right to a long intervention, considering that the five-a-side football team belonging to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane left early. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that excellent addition to the debate. He is correct, of course, that in Scotland there is no statutory protection. However, Scottish planning policy does identify woodlands as an important and irreplaceable national resource that should be protected and enhanced.
Scottish Natural Heritage also seeks to use the planning system to protect those assets, and the Scottish Government operate a strong presumption against removing ancient semi-natural woodland or plantations on ancient woodland sites. In addition, the Scottish Government have produced a biodiversity route map, which has been presented to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. It is an ambitious programme that aims to increase the amount of native woodland in good condition from the 46% notified by the native woodland survey of Scotland. It also plans to restore some 10,000 hectares of native woodland to satisfactory condition in partnership with private woodland owners through deer management planning, as well as improving the condition of designated sites. A good proportion of those locations and native woodlands will be ancient woodlands. The will is there, and much good has been done.
The hon. Lady raises a good question. In the tradition of a Minister, if she will indulge me, I will get back to her on that, because I cannot tell her. I will happily confer with the Scottish Government and get back to her. It is a good question.
It is important to remain vigilant and consider, as the Woodland Trust has urged, stronger and explicit protections for these precious areas of land that we value so dearly. That should include, as ConFor suggests, greater protection through the planning system.
As Arthur Mee reminded us 80 years ago, a number of our trees might have watched a millennium pass. Some, he told us, might have seen the men counting the acres for the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. In Scotland, as we have heard, they could have reached their branches over William Wallace’s betrayal, the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from Culloden. Across these islands, they make our landscapes and cleave us to our history. Their forms and shadows are beautiful still, their value beyond price or measure. Let us cherish them and guard their futures, for in protecting them, we protect who we are too.
It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall for a third time this week, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I apologise for leaving the room; my cough got the better of me.
I am pleased to see the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) yet again; I had expected to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) back to his place after a challenging few days in his home county of Cumbria, devastated by recent floods. I visited on Monday to see what the Cumbrian people were facing. Although we will continue to challenge the Government on their response to and funding for flooding, we will also work with them in the best interests of the affected communities.
The issues that have been raised today are of considerable importance to our natural environment and the biodiversity it supports. That is not to mention the public interest in these issues, with more than 60,000 people responding to the Woodland Trust’s Enough is Enough campaign to urge the Prime Minister to shore up protection for ancient woodland.
Before I offer my thoughts, I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) on securing the debate and on giving us the opportunity to discuss these matters fully. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) for his summary of the debate and for reminding me yet again of my Scottish heritage. He remarked that this has been a consensual debate, and that is not going to change in the next 10 minutes.
Several Members eloquently told us of their favourite, treasured woodlands and of the need to save them. I think I will be looking at the Hansard record of our debate and planning my walking itinerary for the next two or three years, having been provided with such excellent suggestions. However, the hon. Member for Falkirk reminded me of the ancient woodlands and glens not so far from where I spent my childhood, so perhaps that will be well up the list of the places on my tour.
Given that I return to the homeland regularly, I will perhaps need to take up the right hon. Lady’s invitation a bit earlier than I might have planned.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane tempted me into a false sense of relaxation. That was not because her speech was 28 minutes long, but because she took us on that walk through the wood to Enid Blyton’s faraway tree. Then, of course, she brought me back to reality very quickly. Given that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee just weeks ago that
“ancient woodland, as a category, is not a protected category”,
today’s debate could not be more timely. This is the second debate in two days in which we will reach consensus—perhaps because we are working off some of the same briefing notes.
That ancient woodland is not a statutory designation in law sets it apart from many other precious habitats, and means that it is liable to suffer from a lack of protection. The hon. Member for Falkirk quoted paragraph 118 of the national planning policy framework, and it is worth quoting it again, because it actually allows for the loss or destruction, in England, of ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees in cases where
“the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”—
a sad business.
It is important to be clear from the outset that if we lose the ancient woodlands we have left, they are gone forever, as others have said. Our varied climate and geology have gifted us a diversity of ancient woodland forms, whose composition is a product of environmental conditions and historical management that will simply not occur again. Our ancient woodlands cannot, therefore, by definition, be recreated.
As we have heard, the Woodland Trust has identified that, as a result of the planning loophole I mentioned, hundreds of ancient trees and woods are being lost or threatened in the planning system every year. To put that into context, more than 40 ancient woods have suffered loss or damage from development since the framework was introduced just three years ago, in March 2012. As others have mentioned, the Woodland Trust is dealing with more than 600 ancient woods that are under threat. That is the highest number in the trust’s history, and it is increasing all the time.
The situation is not markedly better elsewhere in the UK. Scottish policy, for instance, recognises only somewhat loosely that the value of ancient woods should be considered in planning decisions, while Welsh policy affirms that ancient woods should be protected from development that would result in significant damage.
It is interesting to note that the Minister with responsibility for forests in the previous coalition Administration revealed in an answer to a parliamentary question that the Government do not collect data about the loss of trees and woods. A complete and precise picture of the scale of losses in any given year is therefore impossible, and the task of protection is made markedly more complicated. With areas of ancient woodland having originally been mapped to act as a proxy for areas of high biodiversity, rather than for their inherent value, it is difficult to conclusively identify and value ancient woodland. Although the modest protections currently available are undoubtedly well-intentioned, such inherent difficulties in conclusively identifying and valuing ancient woodlands make those safeguards almost impossible to implement coherently.
That highlights an important point. Although organisations such as the Woodland Trust are well attuned to up-to-date threats and to the latest developments, the Government are, sadly, lagging behind. Not only is there no central database of ancient woodlands, but no recent analysis has been undertaken of the amount of ancient woodland lost year on year to development, infrastructure projects and other causes, such as unapproved felling.
I therefore hope to hear the Minister confirm that his Department has a plan to take immediate steps to rectify these information gaps. I would be interested to hear what consideration he has given to compiling such figures—possibly as part of his Department’s 25-year plan. Addressing that information gap is of central importance if we are to protect our ancient woodlands and the rich biodiversity they support, not to mention the valuable environmental and social wellbeing they provide.
On that point, it is worth while highlighting the distinctive communities of plants and animals that populate many ancient woodlands, some of which, such as the lichen in some ancient Scottish pinewoods, are of international importance. At the same time, the soils in many ancient woodlands are relatively undisturbed and may preserve distinct species communities and natural ecological processes, such as decomposition and nutrient cycling, all of which it is important to protect.
For reasons such as those, the Communities and Local Government Committee called 12 months ago for ancient woodland to be awarded the same protection as designated heritage assets in the built environment. That proposal would have seen the national planning policy framework amended to require any loss of ancient woodland to be wholly exceptional. The Committee also called for work to be undertaken to increase the number of ancient woodlands with statutory designations, such as site of special scientific interest designation, to further boost the protection of these important habitats. However, in response to the Committee’s report, the Government rejected any change to the framework’s wording, giving the opinion that the protections already in place for ancient woodlands under the framework are strong and make it clear that development should be avoided in such areas.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he suggested that “an enormous amount” of ancient woodland in the UK is
“already protected within our national parks and within AONBs”,
with much covered by Natura sites under European legislation and even more falling under regulations that protect sites of special scientific interest. However, in response to a parliamentary question just last month, he confirmed that evaluations from Natural England estimated that only 15% of ancient woodland is located in national parks, and 30% in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Despite statutory designation offering the strongest legal protection from loss and deterioration in condition, only 20% of ancient woods in the UK are designated as sites of special scientific interest. In addition, there is no equivalent for woods deemed to be culturally important, potentially leaving sites with high historic—but low ecological—value with less protection. Furthermore, within national parks, only 29% of woodland has site of special scientific interest status, although even that compares favourably with the 13% of woodland in areas of outstanding natural beauty that is similarly designated.
With those figures in mind, I hope that the Minister will look again at the Communities and Local Government Committee recommendation to designate more ancient woodlands as sites of special scientific interest and that he will support such action to strengthen the legal protection of ancient woodland. Doing so is important, not least because the evidence highlights that even those ancient woodlands located in a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty are not wholly protected against the threat of being impacted by, or lost to, development.
To take HS2 as an example—and we have heard plenty about it today—phase 1 of that significant project, as it is currently planned, directly threatens 39 ancient woods, with a further 23 at risk of secondary effects such as disturbance, noise and pollution, including woods within the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. We might perhaps also consider the hydroelectric scheme proposed at Fairy Glen in north Wales, which threatens ancient woodland within Snowdonia national park. The Cairngorms national park local development plan expressly backs potential development sites that could cause damage to ancient woodland, including at An Camas Mòr, Carrbridge and Nethy Bridge. Indeed, I understand the installation of a micro-hydroelectric turbine within the Cairngorms, for which approval was granted in 2014, will damage ancient woodland, while neither Snowdonia national park authority nor Natural Resources Wales highlighted concerns about the impact on ancient woodland of the Fairy Glen scheme.
As I mentioned at the outset, the risk of allowing such damage is that if we lose the ancient woodlands that we have left they are gone forever. They cannot be replaced. However, that is not to say that we cannot do more to protect vulnerable ancient woodlands and wildlife by creating new woodland and other habitats around the remaining fragments of ancient woodland, thereby shielding them from the effects of neighbouring land use. Members have already mentioned that small ancient woods are particularly vulnerable to impacts from surrounding land uses—chemical pollutants from development, agriculture and the like. Research shows us that fertiliser from cropland can alter the soil chemistry, plant species presence and plant growth as much as 100 metres into an adjacent ancient wood. I would be interested to hear what thought the Minister has given to the potential for utilising such buffer zones around ancient woodlands to help mitigate any such damage, and whether his Department intends to look into that option further to determine its viability.
A number of organisations do important work in restoring, managing and conserving ancient woodland to help it survive, but that work will ultimately prove futile while those habitats remain insufficiently protected in the planning system. I am sure that the recommendations of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government were appropriately considered, but I would welcome hearing from the Minister what steps the Government are willing to take so that the loss of ancient woodland becomes wholly exceptional. In the light of this week’s events, we should not forget that the loss of tree and plant coverage, along with changes in land use in rural and urban areas, has been a significant contributing factor in the increased risk of flooding, particularly in rural areas.
I know that I am asking the Minister to do more with fewer resources, particularly after the comprehensive spending review made further huge cuts to DEFRA’s budgets, but I would be pleased to hear that his Department will work alongside DCLG colleagues to bolster the protection available to ancient woodland as part of the planning framework and ensure that planning departments are required to protect existing woodland while working with developers to include trees as part of sustainable urban drainage proposals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing the debate. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), said, this is the third time I have faced him in this role in Westminster Hall—but it is my fourth time if I include another debate when a colleague of his stepped in.
I should begin by apologising for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), cannot respond to the debate. He has responsibility for the relevant part of the portfolio, but he has been drawn back to Cumbria because of the flooding there, for reasons that I am sure hon. Members will understand. I have had to step into his place at quite short notice, but no one should think that he has no passion for the subject of the debate. I was shown a draft of his speech a little earlier today, and there were some characteristically poetic passages about trees and the passion that he feels for them.
I, too, am passionate about trees. I studied horticulture, and my thesis was on the physiology of deciduous trees in the temperate zone—particularly the issue of how they regulate dormancy. That is an important point: trees define our seasons. They have a remarkable ability accurately to measure day length so that at the same time of the year—every year, whether it is cold or hot—they decide to drop their leaves. They also have a remarkable ability to measure the length of the winter and know when it is safe to burst bud again and start spring. Trees do not get tricked by false springs. No warm snap in January will cause a tree to break dormancy early. They have a remarkable ability to measure the seasons accurately, and they define them.
As we have heard today, our ancient woodlands are highly valued and cherished. We have heard heartfelt contributions from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) about ancient woodlands and habitats in their areas. Those woodlands are a resource rich in life, providing homes and food for animals, birds and insects. They store carbon, produce oxygen and filter out pollution. Of course, they also provide some of the most fantastic places for us to enjoy.
England’s woodland coverage is as high as it has been since the 14th century, totalling a little more than 1.3 million hectares, which equates to 41% of the UK total or 10% of England’s land area. Of course, we must not forget the position we were left with after the second world war, when, sadly, much of our ancient woodland was felled and replaced with non-native conifers.
That conifer planting was carried out on a large scale by the public and private sectors as a result of a policy drive to replenish the national timber reserve and to improve the economics of ancient woodlands. Since then we have made huge strides, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s we established the concept of ancient woodland, rich in plant diversity and managed through traditional practices. We now know, of course, that ancient woodlands are an irreplaceable habitat, which is why we recognise their special status in the national planning policy framework, which was last updated in 2012.
Since the last war, great efforts have been made to restore and actively manage our ancient woodlands. Estimates of ancient woodland coverage vary, but the ancient woodland inventory identifies approximately 340,000 hectares of woodland in England that is ancient. Nearly 200,000 hectares of that is semi-natural and 140,000 hectares is in plantations on ancient woodland sites. Subsequent estimates suggest that there are about 210,000 hectares of native woodland not on ancient woodland sites. Taken together, those three categories of woodland comprise just over half of England’s woodlands, at about 550,000 hectares.
We continue to work to restore our native and ancient woodlands on the public forest estate and many private woodland owners are motivated and incentivised to do likewise. We are committed to ensuring that our ancient woodlands are adequately protected and sustainably managed to provide a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits to society. An example is the Government’s contribution to Grown in Britain, which includes helping owners of small woodland businesses who develop products such as high-end wood furniture from woodlands managed to the UK forestry standard. The value to society of the 40 million recreational visits to forests and woodlands is put at about £484 million per year; 65% of the population visited English woodland in 2013.
We are all aware, however, that there are many competing demands on our resources. We are a small island, more densely populated than India, and there are competing pressures on how we use the land that is our most precious resource. We have ambitions to increase woodland cover and improve the quality of our woodland management, but we must be mindful that those ambitions sit alongside a need to increase food production, create renewable energy and capture carbon, while also maintaining the mosaic of habitats that our wildlife depends on, such as our ancient woodlands. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane pointed out, we recognise that to compete globally we need to update and upgrade our ageing infrastructure, and foster development that enables our economic growth to be sustained.
We have, however, always made a special case for our ancient woodlands—and rightly so. That is why, as I said earlier, they are protected in the NPPF. The passage that deals with them states clearly and unambiguously that
“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and…veteran trees…unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.
The position is very clear—there is protection—and I am not certain what more could be done; the Government certainly have no plans to undermine or change that position. However, I am aware that a number of hon. Members have made some suggestions about how things could be improved and I will return to those suggestions later.
We do not believe that we should simply look to protect our woodlands; we also want to invest in them. Sensitive management of our ancient woodlands can contribute to the challenges I have just mentioned—both capturing carbon and, through wood fuel, biomass-based renewable energy. Effective management can ensure protection against more subtle threats, such as shading of ancient woodland ground flora resulting from lack of management, in order to build resilience to climate change.
Our management continues to promote greater biological and structural diversity in England’s woodlands. In total, 75% of the public forest estate was identified in the Lawton review in 2010 as being critical to supporting the wildlife network and biodiversity in England. That is why the Government have invested more than £60 million in forestry during the past five years.
Private woodland owners continue to be motivated to bring unmanaged and under-managed woodlands back into management, reacting to demand-side initiatives such as Grown in Britain and the renewable heat incentive. Now, 58% of England’s woodlands are in active management, and to support our manifesto commitment we will continue to invest £31 million per annum during the new rural development programme for England, which will see a further 11 million trees planted during this Parliament.
As part of that commitment, we are working with the Woodland Trust to provide more opportunities for schoolchildren to plant, care for and learn about trees. That will give young children the chance to understand and connect with nature, and play a role in making their school grounds and local communities cleaner and greener, helping them to grow the ancient woodlands of the future.
My hon. Friend makes that point about education extremely eloquently, and it is important. Will these children be educated about the immense benefits of ancient woodlands in particular, because, as we have heard today, there is so much involved in them that children could learn from?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I certainly hope that schoolchildren learn about ancient woodlands because, as a number of hon. Members have said, those trees have seen major chapters of our history during their lifetime.
I will also point out that when it comes to the rural development programme, we are doing some direct work on ancient woodlands. More than 4,200 hectares of planted ancient woodland sites owned by the private sector were restored on ancient semi-natural woodlands between 2011 and 2014, and more than 6,500 hectares of plantations on ancient woodland sites have been worked on since April 2011 on the public forest estate.
I turn now to some of the points made by hon. Members in their contributions. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane talked about the importance of urban trees, and I agree. They are very important, and the Natural Capital Committee has noted that in its own report. It is also important to recognise that the NPPF covers both urban and rural areas, so the same protections apply whether trees are in rural or urban areas.
My hon. Friend and a number of other hon. Members talked about databases. We are interested in databases, so I would be interested to see the evidence about how one defines a “threat”, if one is identifying trees that might be under threat. We also recognise that local planning authorities, which ultimately take these decisions, do not report or collate data on ancient woodlands. As far as we are aware, there is no reporting or collating of information, and the shadow Minister raised that issue, too. We are certainly happy to look at it.
Of course, we have the ancient woodland inventory, which was developed in the 1980s. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase pointed out, we also have the Tree Register, a registered charity that updates a register on notable trees. That is very important, providing information on the size and growth of trees, as well as details of historical, rare or unusually significant trees. It, too, makes an important contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane and others also mentioned sites of special scientific interest and asked whether there could be designations of ancient woodlands as “triple SIs”. As a number of Members have already noted, many of our ancient woodlands are already designated as SSSIs, and Natural England is constantly looking for additional areas that should be so designated. Its work at the moment includes looking at additional ancient woodlands to be designated as SSSIs.
One point to note is that although designating an area as an SSSI is a stronger form of protection, in that there is a statutory role for Natural England if there is to be any development on those sites, the test is still quite similar: if the benefits of development outweigh any damage they can be considered. The test itself is broadly the same, but I accept that the level of protection is higher.
My hon. Friend also talked about strengthening the presumption to “wholly exceptional” when development is considered. I know that the Government have considered the issue before; they have taken the view that that change is not necessary because the existing protections are adequate. Nevertheless, I take on board the points she has made today and I am sure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will read a transcript of this debate. He may want to look further at the arguments that she has so forcefully made about that issue.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane that we should accept that although planting new trees is important, and we will plant 11 million new trees during the course of this Parliament, it does not fully mitigate the loss of trees. In fact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) pointed out, even though we are doing lots of planting and mitigation work—that work is important, particularly when it comes to High Speed 2—it cannot replace our ancient woodlands, which are irreplaceable. I accept that.
I move on to the comments made by my right hon. Friend. I know that she has been a tireless campaigner on the issue of HS2 and has many deep concerns about its impact on her constituency. I am pleased that some of the woodlands that she mentioned, such as Mantles wood, have been protected as a result of the decision to put a tunnel underneath the woodlands rather than through them. However, she has made a point today about the areas of outstanding natural beauty sites and other sites affected by that tunnel. I will take her concerns back to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and we will raise those concerns with colleagues in other Departments, notably the Department for Transport, which is making these decisions. We will write to her with our feedback on that process.
The Minister may not be the woodland Minister, but given the position that he occupies in the Department, I am very grateful that he will discuss that matter with his colleague and take it up with the DFT. It is not as if I am asking for the world; I am just asking to save a little bit of it, which is so important.
I am sure—and it is the little bit of it in my right hon. Friend’s constituency that is especially important, as all hon. Members will understand all too well. Of course, my right hon. Friend will be aware that a hybrid Bill is also going through Parliament at the moment in a very long-drawn-out process, as is often the case with such Bills. A number of these matters will be considered by that Bill Committee.
On HS2, I will summarise by saying that the company has stated that it will plant 7 million trees, as a mixture of landscaping and screening and to compensate for the loss of some trees. There has also been a survey. Natural England reviewed the ancient woodland inventory last spring and determined that 16 woodland sites along the phase 1 route of the proposed rail scheme should be added to the inventory. Although they are small sites—there are 10 woods of less than 2 hectares—they have been added to the inventory in order to address some of the concerns that exist. That is a good example of where the Government continue to look sensitively and carefully at these issues, to make sure that we get a decision right.
Finally, a number of hon. Members mentioned the issue of pests and disease, which is a challenge we take very seriously. The Animal and Plant Health Agency monitors diseases such as ash dieback, or chalara, which is of particular concern at the moment. It is true that older trees can often survive infection for a number of years; in some cases older trees are more resilient to disease, particularly when it comes to diseases such as ash dieback.
Fighting disease is a very important part of what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does. We have committed more than £21 million to tree health research, which includes £3.5 million for studies that are being undertaken to identify what can make trees tolerant to ash dieback, for instance.
In conclusion, we are continually striving to improve things in this area, but we acknowledge that this issue is complex. The challenge for us today is totally different from the challenges of the 1920s. That is why we need to balance forestry interests with our global responsibilities and our wider needs on UK land use. The Government consider that the existing protection for ancient woodland in the NPPF is strong and is protecting our ancient woodlands and veteran trees, but as I said earlier, Members have made some powerful points today. I am sure that my colleague, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will read the transcript of the debate carefully, and I will relay some of the concerns expressed and proposals made in that spirit.
I am sorry you missed it, Mr Walker. There was such eloquence and passion in the room. I had lots of interventions, so it was not just me talking for 28 minutes. I honestly and genuinely thank all the Chairs who have sat through the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, to which we had to make representations to secure the debate. When I went there, I had 76 MPs supporting me. Sadly, there is a one-line Whip on a Thursday, and there are floods and all sorts of other reasons why lots of them are not here, but I genuinely had loads of texts and emails from them saying, “I wish I could be there,” and, “Can you say this and can you say that?” I thank them.
I also thank my hon. Friends and other Members who have spoken today. My football team has left, but they did a grand job earlier. What passion and poetry we have had! How lovely! It showed the strength of feeling about the issue. We have had stories and images. We have had my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) in her Dingle and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) swimming in his glen. We had Red Riding Hood with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and so much more. We had my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) walking through the woods, and I am so pleased that she got out to the area of outstanding natural beauty to find out what it is really about. We have waxed lyrical, but it has been obvious that we have great cross-party consensus on this issue. My hon. Friends from Wales could not come, but I had a big Welsh contingent who truly support a lot of the ideas.
I thank the Farming Minister in particular. I am not sorry that he was the Minister who responded today. We would have loved to have had the Forestry Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), but the Farming Minister has embraced the debate in a masterly fashion. I have learned something new about him. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said, we learn something new every day: I did not realise that the Minister had studied horticulture. That was interesting.
I am heartened that there are a few chinks of light—possibly they are splinters—that we can work away at. The Minister is not saying no to everything, and I like the fact that he will look at the “wholly exceptional” wording and that he might look at the database and the collection of data, which we all mentioned. I urge him to continue with that work. Let us harness the passion and improve the protection. If we want not only our children, but our children’s children to experience some of the wonderful things that we have all talked about today, we have to save the 2% of ancient woodland that is left.