25 August 2021 by Alison Hallas
In amongst everything that’s happening, both domestically and globally, you may have spotted the England Trees Action Plan being published.
What is the UK Government planning?
The England Trees Action Plan sets out how the government intends to meet its target of planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year across the UK by 2025: how it will support tree planting and management; where it would like to see trees planted – in towns and cities as well as the countryside; and what benefits they should bring to climate, nature and society. Trees, and woodland walks, can provide particular benefit and enjoyment to specific groups of people, such as those with dementia, and a rich sensory experience for people with impaired vision. Local woods are important to so many people.
We’ve come a long way since a previous government threatened to sell off our publicly-owned forests. Now, you can use your right of open access (the freedom to roam) in most Public Forest Estate woods in England and Wales. And with the value of woodlands for carbon storage, biodiversity, natural flood management, health and wellbeing now much better recognised, the government is set to expand the estate rather than sell it.
So, what can we expect from our woodlands in the future?
For a start, we can expect a lot more of them. Ambitious tree planting targets mean that many of our landscapes will become far more wooded than we’ve been used to in recent decades, although there are also important debates about how to protect some of our other vital habitats from becoming forested.
Will they all be accessible for people to enjoy?
That’s less certain at the moment. The government is offering increased incentives both to plant trees close to where people live (so that you can see but not necessarily visit them), and to create new public access for at least 30 years. But these are still all voluntary – much as they were under the previous system – and it’s uncertain whether these voluntary payments will result in better access for people to their local woods.
Will more trees affect access rights?
Another worry is that landowners can apply for government grants to plant trees on open access land. At the moment, that could mean that access rights are lost when the open access maps are updated. Receiving public money for removing the public’s access rights just seems wrong, and it’s one reason why we think that woodlands should be included under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, with suitable protections for nature and other land management.
The England Trees Action Plan has signalled that the government has recognised this concern. It commits the government to creating new community forests and ensuring “the provision of safe and appropriate public access is a feature of as many woodlands as possible and work with landowners and woodland users to develop and implement a plan to improve the quantity, quality and permanency of public access to new and existing woodlands” and says that the government “will also ensure new woodland designs protect existing rights of access”.
We still receive inquiries from our members and the public telling us that the access they’ve enjoyed to their local woods has suddenly been blocked. How the government’s commitments will help with this in practice, remains to be seen.