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The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The number of ancient woods has halved in the last fifty years"
 real 28k

Sunday, 18 June, 2000, 23:39 GMT 00:39 UK
UK woods' survival 'at risk'
dormouse on branch
The rare dormouse often found in ancient woodland
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The United Kingdom's ancient woodlands are in danger of being fragmented and destroyed, campaigners say.

The woodlands, which form an unparalleled series of havens for wildlife, have lost half their area in the last 70 years.

A report by the Woodland Trust says the remaining woods face "new and accelerating threats", and their survival hangs in the balance.

In a purely British context, the Trust says, the woods play a role comparable to the tropical rainforests. Yet they cover only two per cent of the country's land area.

The report identifies several threats. It says environmental changes, including higher temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, drought and the frequency of storms, will have a marked effect on the woodlands.

bluebells in sunny wood
Growing understanding of woodlands
Some plant and animal species found there may be unable to adapt fast enough, and may become scarce or possibly extinct.

The report says plants at particular risk are the bluebell, the little-known Solomon's seal, and the wood anemone.

And if climate change means milder winters, it expects increasing numbers and varieties of insect pests, both native British bugs and new arrivals from abroad.

Summer droughts, the report says, could create "intolerable stresses and vulnerability to disease" for some species.

The Trust is also concerned at what it says are poor planning regulations, and loopholes in the law, which leaves 85% of ancient woodland without any legal protection.

Encroaching agriculture

Activities like motorcycle racing, for example, or the creation of caravan parks, are allowed for 14 days without the need for planning permission. And in that time the landowner is allowed to remove trees which impede the temporary activity.

The Trust also says modern agriculture is making the problem worse, with overgrazing by farm livestock and wild deer stopping the growth of new trees and preventing the woods from regenerating.

Some farmers are accelerating the fragmentation of woodlands by clearing parts of them to create large arable fields.

logs and for sale sign
Safeguards against selling woods are needed
A list the Trust has compiled of over 30 ancient woodlands which are under threat includes one where mineral extraction is planned, and another where planning permission has been granted for the construction of a warehouse.

The Trust's chief executive, Mike Townsend, said: "Despite a growing understanding of the value of ancient woodlands, and the creation of a number of new policies and programmes for their protection and enhancement, they continue to be threatened and destroyed.

"They are a finite resource which can never be replaced. Their survival depends on action now."

Preventing destruction

The report calls for a new form of conservation status for woodlands and other important wildlife sites, which would give them proper legal protection and make it harder for landowners to destroy them.

It wants local authorities to be given formal planning guidance, to help them to implement national policies.

And it says farmers should be given incentives to encourage them to create protective buffer zones around woodlands, where they would not plough the land or use any insecticides.

Photographs courtesy of the Woodland Trust. Dormouse by Kenneth Watkins, bluebells by Helen Wain.

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29 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
British forests win green approval
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