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Selling our forests and the need for joined up policy

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Why are we selling our forests? Certainly not because public ownership is inefficient in meeting our objectives for forests. Take this fact which appears on page 12 of defra's consultation document - the public forest estate owns 40% of England's conifer forests but produces 70% of England's home grown softwood timber. Surely that makes it a lot more efficient than the owners of the other 60% in producing low carbon wood fuel and building materials to meet the Department for Energy and Climate Change's target for a low carbon economy? And this is the concern of many people working in the timber industry across the Weald. Productive management of the public forest estate provides some stability and certainty to the industry. If we want a vibrant timber industry to meet low carbon economy targets this stability is vital.

It is a shame that the consultation process doesn't take time to look at what society wants from England's forests and what ownership and management structures best meet these aspirations. There is something about forests and woodlands which transcends political ideology. Perhaps it is in our genes. As children we delighted in scary fairy stories of dark and dangerous woods but for our ancestors forests were benign places providing food and shelter throughout the year - berries and nuts, game to be hunted. Just look at the fantastic photographs obtained by Survival International of un-contacted tribes in the Amazon relying totally on forests for all their needs. Today the Forestry Commission, on our behalf, owns and manages 12.5 % of ancient woodlands in the High Weald.

Most have been planted with non-native species termed 'Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites' or PAWS but continue to provide us with timber, carbon storage and recreation opportunities such as the wonderful cycling facility at Bedgebury Forest. All these sites have the potential to improve - be restored to more biodiverse woodlands, to utilise timber more effectively in local building, to conserve and celebrate our cultural heritage but this will take time, expertise and money.

I struggle to see how transferring ownership to private bodies will necessarily improve the capacity of these woodlands and forests to provide the multiple objectives we want in the long term. Of course there are individual owners and charitable trusts who do a fantastic job managing for wildlife, people, archaeology and timber production but not at no cost. When the vital importance of trees and properly managed woodlands is at last being recognised - to mitigate rising carbon dioxide levels, to provide zero carbon fuel and building materials - it would seem sensible and far-sighted to have a public body like the Forestry Commission with a strategic land holding able to lead by example - and at the same time provide us with an enhanced recreation resource which many people find easier to access than the wider countryside.

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