Gnarled oaks and ancient lichens, dating back to the time of Shakespeare, are under threat from a new proposal to allow developers to fell historic woodland, provided that new trees are planted elsewhere. The proposal was announced this month by the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson. It is a form of “biodiversity offsetting”, which is said to promote economic growth whilst increasing the total size of woodlands.
The golden rule is that 100 new trees must be planted for each ancient tree that is cut down. Friends of the Earth attacked Paterson’s plan, arguing that “it’s the quality of forests that’s important, not just the quantity”. However, are environmentalists justified in their attack? Multiplying the volume of trees by 100 could in fact, be a fairly good deal for climate change. Think of the carbon-locking potential of 10,000 ancient trees, compared to one million planted trees once they mature.
There are also ethical arguments. Do we really have the right to judge whether species that thrive in ancient woodlands are more important than species which thrive in young woodlands?
The National Trust claimed that offsetting must not allow “mature irreplaceable habitats [to be] replaced by low-quality habitats that will take decades to develop”. But this is assuming that we do not have decades to wait. Any saplings planted today will, in time, mature to provide the habitat suitable for the wild daffodil, wood anemone and yellow pimpernel.
The cultural and scientific importance of woodlands is a further consideration. Thetford Forest, for example, is where the popular sitcom Dad’s Army was filmed. It also contains many protected adders that are ecologically valuable too. But the felling of many of these trees has been essential for the improvements to the A11. Long delays on this single-carriageway at Elvedon have been all too familiar for students driving between UEA and London by car.
However, most of Thetford Forest is less than a century old. Had these trees been around since Shakespeare’s time, perhaps we would need a mass re-enactment of Macbeth’s demise, in which Great Birnam Wood “grew legs” and marched up to Dunsinane Hill.