Thursday, 27 January 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off

A consultation starts today about a proposal for the government to sell some or all of the land looked after by the Forestry Commission – the Public Forest Estate.

Governments (of whatever political colour) tend to do this from time to time – the last consultation along these lines was only just over a year ago. In fact government has slowly been nibbling away at the estate for years. Every now and then it tries to work out why we have a public forest estate, but even when it satisfactorily answers the question it can’t resist the urge to sell-off some of the family silver to fill a short-term financial hole.

To some extent this is quite reasonable. We have had changing needs from forestry over the last few decades. So it might make sense to look at the resource again to see if it is satisfying its purpose. This may result in selling, or buying, some sites to make sure it is still delivering public benefit.

Unfortunately this sort of logical thinking is rare and it is not happening now.

There is no strategy to this particular sell-off, in my mind this is its biggest flaw. Government is writing a Natural Environment White Paper and early signs are that this could be quite good. The logical thing would be to publish the white paper and then see how the public forest estate is delivering its objectives. Government might then have some rationale for deciding what to do with our public forest estate. Instead, however, we are given the answer – to sell the estate – without really knowing what the question was!

Obviously, the reason given in the current climate is money. No need to mess about with strategy – times are hard and the country needs cash. The proposal will probably involve selling off about 15% of the estate in the next few years, maybe more (or all of it) later. Estimates I have seen indicate that this will make about £100 million. Not much for a valued natural asset. However, even this sum is unlikely. The first thing a new owner will do is look to see what grants they can get for their new acquisition – for replanting, management and capital items. This is perfectly reasonable – if the Sussex Wildlife Trust acquired a site this is what we would do. In practice these grants can often add up to more than the cost of buying the wood. So, government would make money from the sale but then give it all away again in the form of grants. No gain to the treasury there!

However, how much threat would these sold-off woods actually be under?

Woodland is one of our most protected habitats, there is a lot of regulation to prevent damage, and loss of ancient woodland is rare these days. Also those grants are often paid to private landowners to deliver just the sort of wildlife gain that we would want - and some private landowners look after their woods better than the FC. Also, government has indicated that if there is a hole in the layers of protection then they will do more to enhance protection. Nevertheless, I remain concerned. FC often lead the way in the way it does conservation management. It has become a very effective organisation in trialing approaches to deliver good results. Some major aspects of conservation management might never have got going if it was not for the initiative showed by FC. This trial of policy and practice is unlikely to be as effective if the estate is disposed of.

Access for the public might also be a problem. Most of the public forest estate is designated as open access land so access rights should not alter. However, in practice a landowner can do quite a lot to discourage access, whereas FC very effectively encouraged it.

It is not a matter of privately owned woodlands being worse that the publically owned estate. In Sussex we have some fantastic woods owned and managed by estates and private landowners. But public and private should be complementary. For example, FC has been able to support the timber industry by using their “selling power” to help support the market. Trees take a long time to grow; a landowner needs a decent amount of certainty about future markets.

On balance my view is that FC has turned into an efficient and effective body that is doing a great deal to look after the nation’s forest. This proposal comes at the wrong time. Government should work out what it wants from its public estate first and then see whether it should be selling (or buying) land in order to support its objectives. Do the Natural Enviornment White Paper first.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The National Ecosystem Assessment

The National Ecosystem Assessment, due to be published in March, is one of the key inputs into the Natural Environment White Paper (which itself comes out later in the spring). I am lucky enough to have been sitting on the “user group”, a group that aims to input from the perspective of the organisations who might be making use of it. Having been involved for a while, I have to say that I think its pretty good stuff! I gave a brief description in my blog a few months ago, but its well worth going back to their web site now and then to see how it is developing.

The recent work (not yet published on their web site) looks at plausible scenarios – “storylines” for the future and what that might look like in terms of the effect on ecosystems. And I have just got back from a meeting looking at “response options”.

A key output, however, is going to be guidance for policy makers. This means that, if taken up by future governments, “ecosystem services” should be far better valued in decision making.

The practice? Well, so far, for example, if you own an area of land – a farm for example – you are only paid for the food you produce. Food is an ecosystem service, but only one of many. Not surprisingly then, a farmer is bound to focus on food production – apart from a few grants he’s not paid for anything else. But that area of land is producing far more than just food – it may also produce things like flood protection, provide water resources, could be building up soil, soaking up carbon and recycling nutrients. All stuff we take for granted or assume to be free. We get the benefit but don’t pay the price. In future these services will be properly valued and it may even be that a landowner will be paid to provide them.

At present farmers get some grants for looking after wildlife – and maybe he sees this as just providing some form of amenity for the public. The reality is, however, that the richness of this wildlife – biodiversity – could be an indicator of how well that area of land is providing ecosystem services. So providing grants for wildlife may also be a surrogate for providing money for ecosystem services.

There are dangers in all this. Putting a £ sign on nature always seems dubious. But from what I’ve seen the dangers will come from miss-understanding or miss-use rather than it being wrong in principle.

We should protect and enhance nature because it is the right thing to do; it makes the world a place worth living in and enriches our soul. But if you are the sort of person to whom all this sounds a bit fluffy then you can think of valuing, looking after and enhancing nature as really just a matter of informed self-interest.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

It’s a bit cold this winter – has climate change ended?

The appearance of a bit of snow over the Christmas break has brought out the usual questions about whether climate change is actually happening or not. Well, with unusually cold weather, as much with unusually warm weather, a few local and short term events do not alter the clear and increasingly firm evidence of global warming. You can’t draw conclusions, in any direction, from one or two events.

Indeed the Met Office holds this view regarding our recent couple of years of cold winters. This is just normal variation and is nothing to do with global warming. I am sure this is true, but I think it is quite possible to construct an argument linking this to global climate change. Furthermore this is not to suggest that climate change is not happening but on the contrary may actually be one of its effects.

I stress that this is almost certainly untrue and I will say why later but the argument could go as follows:

In 2007 and again in 2010 the arctic lost huge amounts of ice to the sea. You can look at the evidence for this at the brochure on the Met Office web site at:
This ice loss did not fully recover in subsequent years after 2007. This would mean that large amounts of fresh water would have flowed into the arctic sea so reducing the salinity of the sea at that point. This in turn has the effect of weakening the Gulf Stream, and as we all know, it is the Gulf Stream that brings warm weather up to our islands.

So, global warming has melted ice which could now be weakening the Gulf Stream reducing the tendency for warm weather systems to come in from the south-west and allowing cold polar air to penetrate from the north.

In addition, we also know that the poles are warming up faster than average. The average global temperature increase in the last century has been about 0.8 degrees but at the poles it has been nearer 4 degrees. Furthermore we also know that unusually warm air in the stratosphere over the North Pole in 2009/10 had a knock-on effect of reversing the normal direction of wind over the UK – changing it from warm western winds to cold eastern winds.

So again the polar weather system has become more active and as a result could be pushing cold polar air further south.

It’s interesting to look at the weather maps sometimes and try to guess where the “jet stream” (a narrow band of high speed air marking the boundary between polar weather systems and our temperate weather systems) sits. My perception is that it often sits further south than it did in the past. Even in summer it seems that a run of several weeks of good weather suddenly collapses sometime in July as the jet stream, which should sit over Scotland, suddenly shifts south to run over the Bay of Biscay, and we get nothing but rain! Again is this all a possible effect of more active polar air pushing further south?

At the end of all this, however, it is probably far more likely that, as the Met Office suggests, this is just part of natural variation. All these effects do just happen and are not exceptional or part of a trend. For instance melting ice switching off the Gulf Stream has happened in the past, about 10,000 years ago, but it took truly huge amounts of ice when most of North America was covered in an ice sheet which all suddenly fell into the sea at once. And our ice loss, huge though it is, is nothing like on the same scale.

I’ll be interested if these effects keep happening though!