Oliver Newham: We’re at risk of uprooting our natural heritage

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YORKSHIRE is home to more than 56,000 acres of ancient woodland. Each is a unique product of its location, geology, soils, climate and history – conditions that cannot be recreated elsewhere. These woods are places of inordinate beauty, reservoirs of archaeology and economic history, and a source of inspiration for local culture and folklore.

Officially, ancient woodland is defined as land that has been continuously wooded since 1600.

Before this time, mapping was less formalised and planting trees was uncommon, so woodland that can be traced back this far is likely to have developed naturally. Their soils remain undamaged by intensive farming practices or pesticides – a crucial element in what makes these rare woodland habitats so important.

Without getting too technical, these unique undisturbed soils and the fungi that grow within them help to form what is widely considered to be the UK’s richest land habitat. The ancient woodland ecosystem provides a home for more than 256 species of conservation concern, many of which are unable to survive anywhere else.

Ancient woodland is irreplaceable. Nothing can bring it back when it’s gone, and no amount of planting will ever form a habitat to match its ecological or historical value.

Despite all of this, there is very little protection for such woods. Current national planning policy allows ancient woodland to be developed on if the economic benefit is deemed to outweigh the loss. This leaves a dangerous loophole in the rules which, at a time when economic growth reigns, leaves ancient woodland incredibly vulnerable.

The Government, the current Environment Secretary, and many other MPs seem to believe the planning system gives sufficient protection to ancient woodland. But in practice, it is simply not working. We know this because ancient Oaken Wood, in Kent, was lost to a quarry expansion through this planning loophole last year. There are more than 400 other cases of ancient woodland at risk from planning applications.

The Woodland Trust’s records show that currently 16 of Yorkshire’s precious ancient woods are subject to a planning application. Smithy Wood near Chapeltown, Sheffield, is the most recently affected, by an application by Extra MSA for a new motorway service area that, if granted, would see more than 20 acres of ancient woodland destroyed.

Designated as a local wildlife site within Sheffield’s green belt, Smithy Wood has been traced back to 1161 by a local landscape historian. It is a haven for a variety of ancient woodland plants and home to rare fungi, butterflies, and birds including the under-threat song thrush, dunnock, bullfinch and stock dove.

With the current plans proposing not only a service station but new trees, a community woodland area with public access, and improved management of surrounding woodland areas, it all looks very grand. However, as is often the case, it is misleading. Much of the proposed new “community woodland” already exists and is already publicly accessible – 72 of the promised 88 hectares in fact.

The new planting proposed is also at far too dense a ratio. Trees planted close together are less likely to survive and mature. And whatever compensation is offered, the fact still remains that this is irreplaceable ancient woodland – there really can be no justification to build on this site.

The 400 currently threatened woods aren’t the full story. We rely on information from members of the public and have a team of valued volunteers who check weekly for new cases. But it’s inevitable that some will slip through, limiting the opportunity to protect them, especially smaller woods.

The good news is that this month new advice for local planning authorities on the protection of ancient woodland was issued by Natural England, the Government’s advisers. Until now this had only applied to local authorities in the South East, the area with the highest concentration of ancient woodland in the UK.

The Woodland Trust has campaigned for this advice to be rolled out to the rest of the country. It provides clear and unequivocal guidance about how to protect ancient woodland, giving local authorities the power to preserve these unique woods.

It’s one of several steps for change we need to see to make protection measures more effective. More than 46,000 people have now written to the Prime Minister as part of our national campaign calling for better protection for ancient woodland, urging him to help us achieve this.

In the case of 850-year-old Smithy Wood, the power is now truly in the hands of Sheffield City Council. I really hope to see it taking this advice seriously and doing the right thing when considering the planning application submitted to develop this precious woodland.

Oliver Newham is a senior campaigner for the Woodland Trust. To get involved visit www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/campaigning.