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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 00:16 GMT
Britain's 'rainforests' need protection
Trees, WT
The relentless march of concrete threatens historic woodlands
Urgent measures are required to save what are left of the UK's ancient woodlands.

Our ancient woodlands face destruction by stealth

Beatrix Richards, WWF
The habitats - defined as land continuously wooded for at least 400 years - now cover just 2% of Britain but continue to be lost to urbanisation at an alarming rate, say conservation groups.

The Woodland Trust and the global environment programme WWF have called on the government to put in place proper planning and protection systems that would ensure the future survival of what they call "Britain's rainforests".

The woodlands deserve this tag, the groups say, because of the variety and rarity of the species living in amongst the trees - animals like the endangered dormouse.

Golf courses

The Woodland Trust and WWF have produced a joint report called Development Threats to Ancient Woodlands.

It says more than 100 of the UK's most important ancient woods are facing degradation and loss, despite planning policies which seek to protect them.

The report claims to be the first attempt to get accurate national data on how much ancient woodland is being lost to, or is currently threatened by, development.

This includes not just new housing and roads but also leisure facilities, such as golf courses.

It focuses on Kent, Lancashire, south-east Wales and central Scotland to illustrate what it says is happening generally across Britain.

The report says trees continue to be felled despite the government's stated desire to protect them because planning decisions are too frequently made on the basis of inaccurate, and often inaccessible, records and confusing guidance from Whitehall.

Rail link

One highlighted case includes the permission given for a factory extension on three hectares of ancient woodland at Blackmuir Woods in South Lanarkshire.

Angela Douglas, operations director for Woodland Trust Scotland, said that planning regulations were not consistently implemented.

She added: "Local development plans vary widely in their policies regarding ancient and semi-natural woods, from unequivocal protection at one end of the scale, to no mention at the other."

Another example mentioned is the ancient woodland at Ashenbank, Kent, which the report claims has been badly affected by the construction work on the new, high-speed Channel-Tunnel rail link.

The expansion of Manchester Airport is also said to have had a deleterious effect on old trees.

'Easily accessible'

The Woodland Trust and WWF want records of ancient woods to be updated and steps taken to better protect "these fragile, scarce remnants of Britain's living heritage". To do this, the groups believe it is essential to have:

  • an accurate and up-to-date inventory of ancient woodland;
  • a system to monitor ancient woodland loss;
  • clear planning policy guidance on ancient woodland;
  • better consultation on applications affecting ancient woodland;
  • special protection for ancient woods.
Beatrix Richards, WWF Forests Campaigner, said: "Our ancient woodlands face destruction by stealth because of the planning authorities' failure to recognise them as an important resource to be monitored and protected.

"A proper and easily accessible inventory of these woods must be compiled urgently to prevent this essential part of our natural heritage slipping quietly away under a tide of concrete."

Hilary Alison, The Woodland Trust
"We are very reliant on planning policies of local authorities"
See also:

18 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
UK woods' survival 'at risk'
25 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Rain-shy dormice risk starvation
31 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
British butterflies 'in decline'
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