What is going on with small woods in the UK?
How come, as a country, we are failing to bring this resource into active management? And why is it that for some who are trying to actively turn this tide of neglect, the cards can be so overwhelmingly stacked against them?
What is going on with small woods in the UK?
It’s no secret that small woodlands matter… But how much?
69% of all woodland in England, according the National Forestry Inventory 2011 woodland map, qualifies as being a small woodland. And 41% are under 20ha in size.
Iain McNabb (Century Wood) put forward a sound argument that the market potential of all these small-woodlands is infact larger than the sum of the larger, most often managed, woodlands in the UK. Given the right regulatory support, I believe it is possible that this currently neglected woodland resource could help invigorate and enliven the rural economy in many ways.
And recently I have been part of discussions up in Parliament and with our local MP to discuss how to help address planning policies which seem not to be helping bring these woodlands back into management.
I am a woodland owner on Dartmoor National Park, caring for 18ha of organic pasture and woodland. The 11.62ha woodland element is diverse, including ancient woodland, plantation on ancient woodland site, wet-woodland, areas of coppice, mixed broadleaf, and some newly planted woodland areas. I am also having to stand up to my Local Planning Authority (LPA) at a Public Inquiry next month to argue for our needs and at a considerable expense. Believe me when I say that I have seen just how difficult it can be to get the support needed to help make a small-scale woodland enterprise viable despite national and local guidance aiming to do just that.
Nationwide statistics suggest nearly 50% of woodlands are either unmanaged or in critical neglect.
Neglected woodlands represent a huge resource of potential benefit. Foremost ecologically. Managed woodlands return colossal ecological benefits for biodiversity, environment, and other eco-system services. Without management, woodlands gradually decay, species diversity is lost, and, as we have seen over the past 50 years, our woodland culture is eroded to the point that there is little understanding of local provenance or connection to our landscape. Add to this the growing prevalence of disease in our trees, and the loss of heritage skills, and the state of our woodlands is almost a mythic story of great wealth lost or squandered.
What small woodlands can contribute
The unrealised economic potential of small unmanaged woodlands in England could be enormous. Even in our small 11.62ha woodland, through the sale of firewood and timber cut on our mobile sawmill, we are now able to turn over a sustainable income each year. Should we have the support of our planning authority the financial return would improve and we could provide regular employment.
Woodlands can also provide other benefits. In our woods we have held a handful of small-scale workshops and woodland open-days each year. We even got given some funding from the RDPE to engage a local network of woodland owners and workers to learn about extracting timber from small and difficult to access woodlands.
These events have often been great learning experiences and tremendous fun, and all of which have helped us build up a strong community network and identity.
However, even though we have kept this to well under the 28-day annual limit covered by ‘permitted development rights’, we are now having to argue at public inquiry against an enforcement notice claiming a ‘change of use’.
It has become clear through experience that for small woodland enterprise to work (providing firewood and milled timber for our local community), then we need a timber drying barn. We also need a secure barn to store our machinery. This basic infrastructure will support a sustainable business which can then feed-back and sustain the woodland holding.
However, despite the support of the Forestry Commission and other expert foresters, our planning authority has chosen to take a limited view of what is ‘reasonably necessary’ for forestry and assert instead that there is categorically no need for structures to support forestry work. No wood drying. No machinery store. And no covered workspace or dry space to make tea / cook in. It’s a mistaken position and one which needs to be corrected – hence our efforts to explain in full the needs of small woodland restoration projects like ours to the Planning Inspectorate.
To be clear at the outset what I am not advocating is unlimited or unregulated development within woodlands. We want to see appropriate and sensitive development which is tied to the direct forestry needs of the business responsible for woodland restoration work. This includes infrastructure to serve the work-force, the equipment used, and the products created from that same woodland project.
Seven suggestions to help Small Woodlands reach their potential:
1) There needs to be a change to planning policy guidance.
Forestry, especially the small-scale, labour intensive type of forestry required for small woodland restoration, needs to be given clear and open support within the planning system. Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) need more, not less guidance to help serve our woodland needs, expecting LPAs to ‘interpret’ permitted development rights for forestry is stifling the potential for successful woodland enterprise.
2) Small woodland owners need to be able to add value to the timber they fell.
‘Conventional’ commercial forestry sale techniques of standing timber or roundwood sold at roadside do not work for the small woodland restoration scenario. Our costs of felling and extraction, and the timber quality itself (often spectacularly ‘characterful’) makes selling in this conventional market a ‘cost’ operation. We need to add value through multiple means to be able to sell our timber at a profit, cover costs, and invest in our woodland work.
Such adding value should include the most basic of ‘primary processing’ such as cutting and selling firewood and ‘rough-cut’ planks (which all need to be seasoned and dry), traditional coppice crafts, green-woodwork and charcoal. It should also allow and support locally distinctive wooden products such as wooden sculpture, hand-made garden furniture, natural fencing, and non-timber forest products like fungi or fruits etc. The defining feature would be that these products are made from timber & non-timber grown within the woodland holding. Small woodland projects can contribute to a local culture of wood and help people move away from plastic and oil to timber products
3) High quality management.
For forestry to benefit from permitted development rights tied to a woodland enterprise, the woodland should have a clear management plan either approved by the Forestry Commission, or in keeping with the UK Forestry Standard.
4) The definition of what is ‘Reasonably Necessary’ for forestry should be as broadly interpreted as it is in agriculture.
Specifically, it should include ancillary uses and structures needed to support woodland enterprise which serves to achieve the multiple benefits described in the Independent Panel of Forestry Final Report.
LPAs have a very varied interpretation of what is considered ‘Reasonably Necessary’ for forestry when dealing with Permitted Development and Prior Notifications. Where there is a dispute this could be resolved by relying on advice from the Forestry Commission.
There is a mixed understanding by LPAs of permitted development rights of forestry use, while agricultural use is broadly supported.
5) Make forestry buildings subject to the same redundancy clause as agricultural ones.
Permitted Development for forestry buildings does not carry the same redundancy clause in the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) that is found in the wording related to buildings for agricultural use i.e. agricultural buildings becoming redundant within 10 years have to be removed. Not so with forestry buildings.
Some LPAs are therefore very reluctant to allow forestry buildings through Prior Notification as it is feared they can then be declared redundant and used for residential purposes. This could be resolved by making forestry buildings subject to the same redundancy clause as agricultural ones.
6) Government guidance for LPAs should encourage support for the multiple-benefits ancillary to the core forestry activity of felling, planting and basic processing of trees.
These benefits include Ecological Improvements, Primary Processing, Craft and Woodland Products, Public Access, Health and Well-Being, Events and Activities engaging people in the woodland.
This would also be in line with the Government’s new 25-year Environment Plan, which is giving a higher profile to all types of Woodland and Forestry activity and in particular promoting the Health and Wellbeing benefits of engagement with the natural environment.
7) Planning needs to be supportive of small scale forestry workers who need to live and work in the woods which they manage in order to make a living.
Removing the ‘functional’ test (more suited to agriculture), would make it easier for enterprises which are able to make a livelihood from the working of a woodland to develop a home linked to their woodland management, subject to suitable conditions being applied, and go a small way towards the need for new low-cost housing in the UK whilst bringing small woodlands back into active management.
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Doug and Claire King-Smith
RFS members Doug and Claire King-Smith have 10 years’ experience in restoring 11ha of mixed and Ancient Woodland in Dartmoor National Park. Their Hillyfield Woodland Farm won 2nd prize at the Devon County Show in 2014 for best managed mixed objective woodland yet is currently engaged in a Planning Inquiry with Dartmoor National Park Authority after the King-Smith's appealed a decision to refuse a wood-drying barn and machinery store. Doug argues that if the 'reasonably necessary' definition applied to ancillary agricultural buildings was applied consistently to forestry, more local woodlands would be brought back into management and would be able to contribute to local economies.