Wednesday 15 January 2014

Oliver Rackham comments on Ancient Woodlands and Biodiversity Offsetting.  

The following comments regarding ancient woodlands and biodiversity offsetting have been received from Professor Oliver Rackham (University of Cambridge), who is currently on a visit to the USA

"Others will probably point out that the Secretary of State is repeating the old canard that planting trees is a substitute for conserving trees: that woodland can be created at will on any land that no-one else happens to want. But there are other aspects that should not be overlooked.

     He has not caught up with the new fact that tree-planting is no longer a beneficial and risk-free activity: it carries a risk to existing trees.
Planting on the scale that he envisages could not be supported by the domestic nursery trade and would result in more importing of foreign trees and foreign soil and foreign tree diseases - as witness Ash Disease.
Planting trees on an industrial scale promotes globalization of tree diseases, which has recently emerged as the most serious of all threats to the world's trees and forests.

    I gather from what has reached me at third hand that the Secretary of State is advocating something like the 'land-banking' that is official policy in New South Wales. It is highly controversial there, especially as it is an incentive to corruption. I would advise wildlife trusts not to touch it.

     The proposals would seem to require developers to acquire three acres for every acre that they do now. Moreover they would have to promise to remain in business for long enough to see a woodland creation project through to completion. Is this realistic?"

BSBI welcomes comments on ancient woodlands and biodiversity offsetting from all its members. Email me at or post shorter comments below: 


  1. Owen Paterson fails to realise that there is a whole ecology connected to woodlands that cannot be recreated no matter how may trees you plant.

  2. Geologist Dr Clive Jones OBE sent me these comments: "Ancient Woodlands offer a valuable semi-natural environment where the close relationship between flora and substrate can be clearly demonstrated. The characteristics of ground flora and the shrub layer provide a diagnostic key to bedrock geology, superficial deposits and soil type. So also, where the tree cover has not been greatly disturbed by management, this can also accurately reflect substrate conditions. Base-rich soils derived usually from limestone bedrock and calcium-rich glacial tills support the richest ground flora in terms of species diversity and density of cover. This is emphasised where soils are clayey and water retentive. Under more acid conditions this diversity is reduced and one or more species can dominate the woodland floor. Some, often rare, indicator species dependent on soil chemistry can be found amongst the more dominant and tolerant forms. A similar situation of indicator and more widespread species can be recognised in the shrub layer and mature canopy".

  3. Botanist Steve Hawkins commented via Facebook: "When you judge a site by its flora, you really are not seeing the wood for the trees. In any case, for wildlife in general, it is the *common* species that matter, not the rarities. We almost lost a wood to Tesco, through a silly debate as to whether, the locally rare, toothwort, was still there. Being a hard plant to find at the best of times it was impossible to say, but it was key in the fate of the whole wood, even though it probably was of no importance whatsoever to the wildlife value of the wood itself. I have, similarly, seen reports from developer's consultants, that dismissed a neutral grassland site as unimportant because it didn't contain great burnet. This may not fool you, but it is easy to fool an inspector, especially if there is no-one present to go carefully through env impact studies; write rebuttals; and present them forceafully at public inquiries. In most cases, nowadays, there won't be inquiries, because the system has been fixed in favour of developers, and planning authorities are all rabidly pro development, but this is no excuse for giving developers and governments the opportunity to pretend that a site is not important for spurious reasons".

  4. Where in the USA is Oliver Rackham visiting? I am there myself and would be interested to know if he is close by.

  5. Biodiversity offsetting is the crucial issue here. Its not a great leap from saying 1 ancient tree = 1000planted trees, to 1 ancient tree = £x. The result will be the commodification of nature, and this process is under development at the University of Dundee Law Department where research is ongoing into the pitfalls and advantages of the privatisation of conservation

    'As well as being legal innovations, such mechanisms also present a different view of biodiversity interests in terms of legal status, their nature as public or private goods and their place in relation to competing public and private interests. To the extent that they represent a “privatisation” or “commoditisation” of conservation, this marks a significant departure from existing conceptual approaches which view nature more as a common heritage than as a subject of commercial transactions.'

    Unwittingly BSBI and other organisations and individuals have provided the economists with all the information they need to give monetary value to species. Species mapped in 10% of grid squares can be easily given an exact comparative price in relation to one occurring in 80% of the squares. Similarly non native and native plants can be weighted or given negative values.

    I know BSBI is not a pressure group and its members have collated and given information freely and I hope will continue to do so. However it may be appropriate to write up a position statement for the organisation on issues like biodiversity offsetting and what use or mis-use is made of the work it does.

  6. I agree with the above statement from Willowarch. Please also refer to work done by TEEB and reading an important book, published this year; 'Nature in the Balance: The Economics of Biodiversity”, edited by Dieter Helm and Cameron Hepburn.
    Pragmatically, we must start putting a monetary value on ecosystems and biodiversity to curb the increasing rate of denouement of natural capital.


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