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When an ancient tree falls, we will hear it - why the Ancient Woodland Inventory must be updated

When an ancient tree falls, we will hear it - why the Ancient Woodland Inventory must be updated
3 min read

Conservative MP Michael Fabricant writes ahead of his Ten Minute Rule Motion today calling for an Ancient Woodland Inventory for England.

The Ancient Woodland Inventory is there to protect our woodlands yet smaller woods, under about 5 acres, remain unprotected.  This bill will update the Inventory to include these smaller woods.

As anyone who has watched my recent Youtube videos on Parliamentary committees will be aware, I’m a tree hugger and proud of it.

Ancient woodlands are an irreplaceable habitat and cover only 2.6% of land in the UK. That’s 2.6% that we know of - There could be a lot more.

Last year, an updated National Planning Policy Framework was introduced, which included long overdue protections for ancient woodland. The framework makes clear that developments which damage or destroy ancient woodlands should be refused except in exceptional circumstances.  

This is of course fabulous news. But, in order to protect ancient trees, we need to know where they are first. 

The existing inventory has become an essential reference tool for planners, developers, land-owners, foresters, conservationists and others keen to protect and restore these irreplaceable wooded habitats. It tells us, for instance, that HS2 is going to destroy at least 56 hectares of this irreplaceable habitat. Indeed the number of all threatened ancient woodlands is now at 811 hectares.

However, the Inventory was originally developed in the 1980s when computerised mapping was in its infancy, and the lack of updates to it has meant it is missing data. 

This has in some cases has resulted in ancient woodlands being lost or damaged by development or mismanagement simply because they are not recorded on the Inventory – this is particularly true of smaller sites which are often not yet recorded. 

There have also been significant steps taken to restore some ancient woodlands damaged by conifer plantations, yet these positive changes go unrecorded. 

The basic methods for identifying ancient woodland have not changed. However, the policy and the technology have - as has public awareness, appreciation, expertise and research, making a full update both more feasible and more urgent. 

It is the smallest sites that have regularly suffered from this inaccuracy. There are few sites smaller than two hectares recorded in the Inventory, yet we know they exist and they are often the most at risk of loss or damage. 

A simple comparison between ancient maps and the Inventory, as can be done relatively simply in the digital age, shows countless small sub-two hectares copses of ancient woodland that are on one but not the other. Unregistered, unprotected, gone.

I don’t intend this to be a barrier to good, well sited and much needed home construction. Indeed, this will actually speed up development, helping to avoid lengthy disagreements and costly proposals that have been put forward on incorrect and outdated evidence. 

Much of my own constituency of Lichfield is filled with wonderful ancient woodland which provides so many benefits, with so much public good which cannot be replaced. 

Untilled soil capable of storing carbon and providing a nutrient rich mix for thousands of species of plant, fungi and lichen; ancient oaks, alder, hazel and birch which provide the very air we breathe and the food and shelter for the creatures we care about.  These and so much more may be lost. 

This bill needs to be enacted because even as I write, unregistered, unnoticed and ignored ancient woodlands are at risk of being lost – much to the dismay of our constituents who do cherish these forgotten vales of tranquillity. 

We need to let the people know, by the power of this Bill, that when a tree falls; we will hear it.

Michael Fabricant is the Conservative MP for Lichfield

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