Four weeks, 15,000 emails and 600,000 words for our ancients

This autumn, we asked you to show your support and stand up for ancient woods and trees. Our targets received more than 15,000 emails. Thank you to everyone who played their part. You were articulate, passionate and knowledgeable and we’re bowled over by the strength of feeling expressed in such a short period.  

Over 600,000 words were sent to ministers. I’ve read every one, and what a moving exercise. Words like ‘respect’, ‘brutal’, ‘forgive’ were frequent. Memories, likewise. Disbelief (“I thought this only happened in Brazil”) mixed with impatient pleas for some compassion, some action – and sharp reminders of promises made.

Original poems, famous song lyrics, spiritual quotations. Emotional appeals for common sense. Practical offers of expertise. Anxious fears for children, and their children. But plenty of encouragement. And much, much hope. 

These are the words our ancients need, having no voice of their own. We gathered just a handful into a booklet to hand directly to ministers and other key political contacts. Are your words in there?

Your words are so heartfelt and honest. They can’t fail to make an impression. And they make us feel so optimistic, like that moment in The Secret Garden where Mary first clears a patch of dry leaves and dusty weeds to reveal 'the pale green point' of a bulb. And we are getting somewhere.

Nine hectares of ancient woodland lost to new road development, A21, Tonbridge (Photo: Ben Holmes/WTML)
Nine hectares of ancient woodland lost to new road development, A21, Tonbridge (Photo: Ben Holmes/WTML)

What words can do

Our campaign’s main objective is to ensure those words impact on our targets. So what’s been happening?

Wales 

The campaign followed a Welsh Government consultation on a number of proposed changes to environment policy, entitled ‘Taking Forward Sustainable Use of Natural Resources’ (SMNR). The proposals were originally produced several years ago by a task and finish group set up by the Welsh Government on which Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) was represented, along with local authorities and others. We were delighted to see some very positive proposals included that will strengthen protection for individual ancient trees and heritage trees – the ‘gnarled and wrinkly’ of the tree world. It’s a great step forward. Over 280 Trust supporters responded to welcome and support these changes.

The excellent news is that when the Welsh Government then received more than 1,300 messages calling for better protection for our ancients during our most recent campaign, these were also accepted as valid responses to the SMNR. What a powerful message to Welsh ministers! Such a ringing public endorsement for improving protection should further encourage the Welsh Government to write them into law. We expect to know more in the New Year.

Coming up, the Law Commission will be advising the Welsh Government on its review of planning law including on tree protection measures. This review and the responses to the consultation on the SMNR are all likely to lead to proposals for legislative change in Wales, securing greater protection of ancient, veteran and valued trees.

The future looks brighter for our irreplaceable ancient woodland, but many are still under threat (Photo: Ben Lee/WTML)
The future looks brighter for our irreplaceable ancient woodland, but many are still under threat (Photo: Ben Lee/WTML)

Scotland

Our efforts to tackle the record number of ancient woods under threat continue thanks to the support of our network of Woods Under Threat volunteers. These ‘threat detectors’ are trained to challenge potentially damaging planning applications and allow us to spend more time directly influencing local planning authorities on local development plans, promoting better statutory protection for ancient woods and trees at a local level. 

A lot has been happening at Holyrood too. Earlier this month we sat in the parliamentary debate on the Scottish Forestry Bill. Fulton McGregor MSP spoke enthusiastically about the presence of ancient woodland in his constituency and his new-found appreciation for this after a site visit with Charles Dundas, our public affairs manager. Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, expressed a commitment in his introduction speech to restoring 500 hectares of ancient woodland, and John Finnie MSP asked for native woodland creation targets in legislation. Improvements in deer management to prevent damage from deer browsing and grazing in ancient woodland are also on the way. The Forestry Bill is our most important piece of forthcoming legislation so we are watching its progress carefully.

More than 1,100 emails were sent to ministers urging them to help make sure that good policy becomes good practice in reality. If you’ve received a response to your email we’d love to see it: please forward it to us at scottishcampaigns@woodlandtrust.org.uk.

Northern Ireland

It’s party conference season so we’re busy building relationships and sharing our messages directly with elected representatives. But we’re still without a devolved administration (although the Secretary of State assures us that we are not the subject of direct rule). So it’s not surprising that woodland protection has not been given the focus we want within Stormont. Essentially the lack of an executive means decisions will be made by civil servants. The big things on our wish list – including a review of the ancient woodland inventory and an audit of the effectiveness of felling controls – will probably be delayed. In the absence of a devolved administration we’ll continue to press the Secretary of State and civil servants to move these crucial issues forward. 

Our campaigning doesn’t stop though! There’s good news for the iconic Dark Hedges, with a long-overdue reprieve from traffic pressures. Traffic, and the related footfall, has become an increasingly serious problem thanks to round-the-clock visitors who travel from far and wide to worship this historic beech hedge, which forms part of the ‘Kingsroad’ in the TV show Game of Thrones. They have become a ‘must visit’ spectacular, and a victim of their own success. After many years of pressure from conservation groups including the Trust, the Department for Infrastructure has now agreed to close the Breagh Road which should help extend their life span..

Successful campaigning has brought good news for the Dark Hedges (Photo: WTML / Edward Parker)
Successful campaigning has brought good news for the Dark Hedges (Photo: WTML / Edward Parker)

Meanwhile there’s mixed news about some of Northern Ireland’s limited remaining ancient woodland. Plans for a relief road between Newry and Warrenpoint could see long-established woodland fragmented, whereas other route options might even pass right through areas of ancient woodland. These woods are so scarce in Northern Ireland, it’s distressing to consider the prospect of any loss. So far, our engagement with the Department for Infrastructure and the consultants has been positive, and we’ll be referencing the views shared by more than 200 people during our campaign to keep up the pressure. Keep up to date by signing up for our e-newsletter.

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England

Your appeals for our ancients have clearly been heard at the highest levels. For example, in his speech on the main stage at the Conservative Party Conference, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, lamented the loss of ancient woodland. As did Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Private Secretary at his department and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees. Then, during a discussion in Parliament on the business of the House of Commons, Mims Davies, Vice-Chair of the APPG and a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), requested a formal debate on ancient woodland. This prompted Andrea Leadsom MP to reply that these habitats “are really quite astonishing and absolutely irreplaceable”. A debate could be a fantastic opportunity to further the need for policy amends. Such strong language from Mrs Leadsom, who spoke while in her role as the Leader of the House of Commons, shows how far our message is permeating throughout Westminster.

The online noise from more than 13,000 emails to ministers also helped us secure important face-to-face meetings, including an invitation to a cross-government meeting at DCLG. There we were able to reiterate our view, which is backed by independent legal advice – the Government’s stated intention to strengthen protection for our ancients can only be effective with an update to policy wording, ideally bringing it in line with our man-made heritage, for which any loss must be 'wholly exceptional'. Over 30,000 people have contacted the Government since February specifically requesting this change.

Officials accepted our call for parity is not anti-development. It’s about providing much-needed clarity for developers and planners alike, which leads to informed decisions – thereby bringing down the record number of ancient woods under threat (now standing at 506 in England alone). With your words to back us, we’re building on our lobbying work so all government departments can understand this.  

Things are really moving towards crunch time

Across the UK, major step-changes in protection for our ancients draw ever closer. Most tangibly is English planning policy. The Planning Minister, Alok Sharma MP, has confirmed a draft of the revised National Planning Policy Framework will be published for consultation in early 2018, alongside the Government’s response to the Housing White Paper consultation.  This will be our chance to embed that simple update into national policy. Our ancients will need you to speak up for them then – hopefully for the final time.

Make sure we can contact you when the time comes.

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