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Is the selling off of MoD bases bad news for ancient woodland?

When you think of major landowners in the UK, the Forestry Commission, National Trust and the Crown Estates are likely to spring to mind. Between them they look after tens of thousands of woods, well over a billion trees and more than three million acres of our soil. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is also right up there, controlling 2% of the UK’s land. This is all set for a major shakeup though.

In November 2016, the MoD published A Better Defence Estate, committing to reducing costs and in turn its landholdings by 30% by 2040. In total 91 of its sites are to be sold off, earmarked to help it meet its government target of delivering land for 55,000 new houses.

Good news?

On many levels this should be good news. A 30% reduction in troop numbers from last century has seen many bases underutilised and increasingly expensive to maintain. These large brownfield sites represent an opportunity to access desirable land, often close to existing urban areas. As the recent Chattenden Barracks/ Lodge Hill controversy shows though, it’s never that easy.

In the Lodge Hill case, many thousands of people joined the RSPB in its defence of what had become the most important nightingale habitat in the UK. We, along with many other organisations also objected to the 5,000 houses being proposed on this old MoD base, not just for the adverse wildlife implications, but for the damaging impacts the development represented to five neighbouring ancient woodlands.

Woodland Trust staff at a recent visit to Colchester (Photo: Oliver Newham/WTML)
Woodland Trust staff at a recent visit to Colchester (Photo: Oliver Newham/WTML)

Impact on ancient woodland

The proposed sell-off of 90 other sites presents similar concerns. The MoD doesn’t just own bases, but huge tracts of ancient woodland and wood pasture, and is steward to many individual ancient and veteran trees. A quick tally reveals around a fifth of the sites may contain or be next to such important natural assets.

We have always had a good relationship with the MoD and our armed forces, not least in planting trees. In fact we have planted nearly 400ha of new native woodland across eight sites under our partnership with them.

Last week we were expertly hosted by the Commander of Colchester Garrison and Sir Bob Russell as we examined the implications there for local ancient woods and trees in the sell-off. Thankfully none in this particular example are directly threatened by new housing, but they will see added pressure of increased use for training within the woodland and development on neighbouring lands.

We need to protect ancient woodland for ourselves and future generations (Photo: WTML)
We need to protect ancient woodland for ourselves and future generations (Photo: WTML)

What happens now?

As the sell-off goes forward the Trust intends to be an important part of the conversation. Not only do we need to protect what is already there by buffering the woodland and linking wildlife habitats, but these sites have the chance to be healthy, happy green places. This must happen, not least for future generations beyond ours. So we’ll impress this on the MoD, local councils and everyone in government we speak to. Let’s hope it works.

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