PROTECTION OF ANCIENT WOODLAND IN THE NEW FOREST – 10 December 2015

Dr Julian Lewis: Thank you, Mr Turner, for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I, as one of the last of the Back-Bench contributors, have the great pleasure of congratulating all those who have spoken before me, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has done a wonderful job not only of securing the debate, but of alerting other right hon. and hon. Members to the fact that it was going to take place. It has certainly been very well attended so far.

I note that until very recently the Scottish National party was well represented in this debate. I understand that the party is not fully represented at the moment, for good reasons, and I know that it is the long-term aim of its Members to cease to be represented entirely at Westminster. All I can say is that, while they are here, their contributions to our debates are greatly appreciated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) managed to marry with the topic of this debate the relentless and gallant campaign that she has been waging to preserve so much of our precious rural heritage against the depredations of HS2. I am sure that this phase of her parliamentary career will be well remembered by future generations who benefit from the restrictions and reductions in the devastation that building HS2 along its original planned route would otherwise have inflicted. Those reductions are greatly to be welcomed, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend has many more in mind before she desists.

My hon. Friends the Members for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) embodied something that I have noticed about the whole debate. We are all used to having fraught debates and arguments in this Chamber and in the main Chamber of the House, but something seemed to come over every contributor to this debate as soon as they became involved and engrossed in the topic: a quality of content and delivery that was almost poetic. That speaks to the vital importance not only physically, but psychologically, of our valued, treasured and wonderful ancient woodlands to the people who have the privilege of enjoying them.

I understand that the definition that woodlands must meet to qualify as ancient is that the site must have existed since at least 1600 AD. Given that the New Forest dates from 1079, it clearly qualifies very easily, although it must be borne in mind that it is called the New Forest precisely because it was a creation by man to supply fresh meat to William the Conqueror and his entourage. Hence, the term “new” in our history means approaching merely 1,000 years old, which I suppose is new on some basis of terminology.

The networks of woodland in and around the New Forest collectively form one of the largest extents of lowland forest remaining in western Europe. I am indebted to the New Forest National Park Authority for providing me with a briefing on some of the main aspects of what I am about to say. There are 4,800 hectares of the ancient and ornamental woodlands in the Open Forest alone and there are many privately owned fragments within the New Forest national park boundary. While their communities of plants and animals, many now rare, are an echo of the prehistoric wildwoods that covered much of Britain, they have since been uniquely shaped by farmers, commoners, local people, livestock and wild animals, resulting in the complex landscape and ecological patterns that we see today.

About 1,500 ancient or veteran trees have been recorded so far in the New Forest, most within the ancient and ornamental woodlands in the heart of the New Forest, but many on private land. Those trees have a feeling of great age and character, with gnarled and twisted trunks, crevices and hollows and a large girth, some more than 8 metres around – hon. Members can tell that I did not draft those words myself, as I would have been most unlikely to have used metres rather than more traditional measures. Oaks and ash trees will be at least 400 years old, while yews can live for over 1,000 years.

The character of the New Forest has been well summed up by Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, who is not only the current chairman of the New Forest National Park Authority, but a distinguished former official verderer of the New Forest. In connection with the topic we are debating, he said to me:

“The New Forest is believed to have one of the largest extents of Ancient Woodland in Western Europe. Immensely old, and full of character, some of the ancient trees within these woodlands are especially rare. Our Ancient Woodlands have been sculpted by man, revered by generations of local people and survived through remarkable changes in the world around them. They are unique and cannot be replaced. In the New Forest we are working together to protect, enhance and manage our Ancient Woodlands; they are such an important part of our living, working landscape and we want them to remain so for future generations.”

For people in the modern age, ancient woodlands are a retreat from hustle and bustle—somewhere it is possible to find peace and inspiration, and to get closer to nature. There is strong evidence supporting the idea that the use and enjoyment of woodlands improves people’s overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, they have been described as a natural health service.

Although the UK was covered in woodland 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, woodland now covers only about 2% of the land area of the UK. That is why it is so vital that it must be protected for future generations. There is not only the question of the physical destruction of ancient woodland, but a risk of tree pests and diseases entering the country from abroad, as well as non-native invasive plants that spread within woodlands and put native wildlife at risk. Natural England estimates that 15% of ancient woodland is located within national parks and 30% is located within areas of outstanding natural beauty. In national parks, 29% of the woodland has site of special scientific interest status, as does 13% of woodland in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

One thing I have found, as a city boy who was fortunate enough to be selected to represent a wonderful rural constituency, is that for all the peace, tranquillity and beauty of the gorgeous New Forest, it is not without controversy. There are many organisations and people with a long history of interest and participation in the activities of the New Forest. I think I am right in saying that, of all the national parks, the New Forest is the most densely populated.

Among the commentators with long experience and great reputation on matters concerning the New Forest is Mr Anthony Pasmore, who regularly writes an expert column in the local press on current affairs affecting the welfare of the forest environment. He has drawn to my attention the danger of trying to be what could almost be described as “too naturalistic” in the conservation of the forest. For example, when we have storms – as inevitably occur from time to time – that cause windfall destruction of parts of the forest, ancient and not so ancient, there is now a tendency to leave all the fallen trees where they lie. I understand that, traditionally, it has always been understood that some 20% of windfall trees should be left behind to create beneficial habitats for beetles and other wildlife. There is always a slight tension between trying to interfere to the minimum amount necessary and remembering that the New Forest is a living, working forest. He raised with me the fact that there is an almost blanket ban on the withdrawing and removal of tree debris following such destruction, which is actually making the forest less habitable and less accessible to human beings by overdoing the environment that one wishes to preserve for the beetles and other wildlife.

Rebecca Pow: My right hon. Friend is waxing so lyrical and making such a good point that I cannot resist joining in. Many of these ancient woods are not just old relics with rotting wood; they are managed landscapes, many of which have been coppiced over time so that man can use the wood for other purposes. These ancient woodlands are still valuable, and I am sure that large tracts of the New Forest are included in that.

Dr Lewis: That is precisely the point that I was endeavouring to make, and my hon. Friend makes it with far greater fluency than my poor efforts.

Anthony Pasmore draws attention to the fact that the New Forest is just that: it is ancient, but it is also new. It is what it is because, as he puts it, there is a “question of balance”. There has to be a question of balance between letting nature take its course and managing the forest in such ways as go with the grain of beauty and accessibility, rather than always trying to take too rigid a stance, which might inhibit the ability of the community that lives and works there to enjoy the New Forest. Those are secondary issues; the most important fact is that we have this wonderful asset.

I shall conclude with a rather modern controversy, namely, the possibility of hydraulic fracturing taking place underneath a national park at some stage. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham [Mrs Gillan] about how it is possible to preserve and save woodlands by driving tunnels deep beneath them, and therefore, in principle, it might well be possible to extract valuable energy assets from a long way below the surface even of sensitive areas. We know that hydraulic fracturing may well yield great dividends for our country’s economy, but there are plenty of parts of the United Kingdom where we can master the technology long before we need to bring it anywhere near those particularly precious areas that have been designated as national parks. This is my appeal: the Government should by all means explore fracking technology, but they should make sure that they know what they are doing, by practice and by developing a successful industry based on hydraulic fracturing in less sensitive areas of the country, before approaching anywhere near our ancient woodlands and national parks.