Yorkshire’s ancient woodland ‘needs protection’

Campaigners are warning Yorkshire’s ancient woodlands face a growing threat as developers offer new tree planting elsewhere as a way of getting around planning objections.

Robin Ridley and Oliver Newham from the Woodland Trust

National society the Woodland Trust has identified more than a dozen sites in the region dating back to the 17th-century or earlier which are at risk of being destroyed.

It fears the practice if ‘biodiversity offsetting’, which allows developers to justify a loss of habitat with a promise compensatory woodland will be created or restored somewhere else, will pave the way for destruction of historic habitats.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Proposals for a new motorway service station for the M1 in South Yorkshire have been been held up as one of the first examples of an attempt to use the controversial process and conservationists fear the approval of the scheme could set a national precedent.

Oliver Newham, lead campaigner at the Woodland Trust, said: “The loophole allowing for the destruction of habitat if a proposed development is deemed to outweigh the loss, has brought the axe ever closer to hundreds of ancient woods. Government’s heavy focus on economic growth at all costs in recent years has only made this worse.”

In January, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson proposed the idea of mandatory offsetting as a way of balancing development in rural areas with environmental concerns.

A Defra spokesman said ancient woodlands are protected and development should be avoided.

Motorway Services Extra’s plan for the £36 million station on 12-century Smithy Wood near Sheffield, includes an 80-bed hotel and food court. The company has stressed that the proposal includes a promise to create a new 39 acre woodland with 60,000 new trees which would be opened up to the public.

Mr Newham added: “Smithy Wood is one of 16 ancient woods in Yorkshire currently threatened, with only the planning system left now to protect them.

“This is one of the first examples we’ve seen of a developer attempting to justify the destruction of ancient woodland with new planting being offered in place of an irreplaceable habitat.”

Liz Ballard, chief executive of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, said: “We are particularly concerned about this case because of its impact locally on Sheffield and the message it might send out to developers across the country.

“There are certain habitats, such as ancient woodland, which have developed over hundreds of years, with a unique ecosystem, that cannot be replaced by planting a lot of new trees somewhere else. You cannot play swap shop with nature.”

A number of ancient woodland sites lie in the path of the proposed high speed rail link to Yorkshire.

Richard Pain, an HS2 spokesman, said: “HS2 Ltd fully recognises the importance of our ancient woodlands and they have been avoided where possible when planning the route of this much-needed new railway.”