The Westminster government wants to treble tree-planting by 2024. What might this mean for commons in England?
The suburban resident of the Home Counties might assume that all commons historically were woodland, for the cessation of grazing in the twentieth century has caused many to become woodland through natural succession. However, a resident of upland England might assume that a fell common had always been denuded of trees, perhaps while lamenting an increase in gorse and bracken owing to a decline in the turn-out of cattle.
Some commons have been woodland for as long as records enlighten—Ashtead Common in Surrey boasts over 2,000 ancient trees, many of them pollarded over centuries. It is a traditional woodland pasture, combining the commoning of animals with timber production, long before agroforestry became a ‘new’ idea.
But most upland commons lack extensive tree cover, with commoners’ livestock discouraging trees from taking root, save in inaccessible places such as along rocky gorges or in boulder fields (eg Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor). Views differ on how these places appeared in pre-history.
Commoning generally has been practised for centuries. Is what we see now very different from the mediaeval period? Has the modern shift from cattle to sheep affected the flora of upland commons? Our suburban resident might insist that the local common had always been woodland. Is it right to assert that upland commons always lacked scrub and tree cover?
Today, there are incentives to increase woodland planting in the uplands. This is not a reprise of afforestation in the twentieth century, but a multiplicity of proposals to plant relatively small areas of deciduous woodland, or to cultivate scrub in often carefully-crafted sites along the sides of valleys or in combes.
New cover can improve biodiversity, ameliorate run-off (and its contribution to flooding), create shelter for livestock and—depending on the context—promote carbon capture.
The society sees merit in well-planned planting schemes as part of a strategy for the management of the uplands. But there is little sign of a strategy: every proposal is site specific, with no vision for what the nation wants to achieve in the uplands, still less a recognition of the special character of commons.
And new planting needs fencing in order to thrive. In the uplands, the fencing must be retained for many years. Such fencing requires the authorisation of the secretary of state or Welsh minister under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006, on which we are consulted.
Fencing would also be required if only to enable natural regeneration. That would avoid the need to plant out with tubes (which have their own impact on the environment). But funding seldom fosters natural regeneration, presumably because it is too passive, and the pace of growth is far too relaxed for the average project term.
If that were all, the society might support a well-planned planting scheme. But there is little long-term experience of similar schemes or, if there is, it is not being taken into account. Section 38 applications for such schemes are sought typically for terms of 15 years, with no indication of a possible extension. When the authorised term of fencing expires, the responsible parties frequently revert to the minister to seek extensions of the term, justified on grounds that:
- growth is slower than expected and requires enduring protection;
- although consent was procured for tree-planting, other species have flourished because of the exclusion of livestock, and the parties want to protect them with continued fencing;
- management of commoning livestock would be impaired if the fencing were removed.
These grounds are predictable. Scrub and woodland can conflict with management of grazing by commoners unless the planting is fenced off from the rest of the common. It is more time-consuming to gather stock from the fell if animals might be lurking unseen in dense cover, and there are fewer active commoners to engage in the task. There must be considerable doubt about whether commoners will ever support the removal of such fencing, even when the planting achieves maturity.
We also doubt whether new woodland is sustainable in the selected upland locations. Even with protection from livestock, planted trees may struggle to become established, and after-care may be lacking, particularly beyond the term of any funding. Will trees really thrive in these habitats, or is survival dependent on an unspoken assumption of a permanent cessation of grazing?
As it happens, many woodland-planting proposals are put forward by the commoners themselves, typically through a commoners’ association, in order to pursue funding via an agri-environment agreement. One senses that the proposals are often advanced without enthusiasm, and only because that funding is key to the medium-term viability of commoning.
There is a question over whether, when the decision finally must be made to dismantle the fences (leaving aside the possibility of perpetual extensions or permanent consent), funding and commitment will remain. And if that decision is not made, will it be practicable to identify, many years on, who originally was responsible for the erection of the now-unlawful fence—and against whom, if all else fails, a court order can be sought?
Planting proposals can have other consequences. Fencing does restrict public access, even if stiles or gates are put in place. And planting close to paths and tracks is likely to interfere with passage, if not in the near future, then in the decades ahead, when funding and enthusiasm to cut back overgrowth have dissipated.
Unless there is a long-term plan to facilitate and maintain access, for example through leaving broad, open rides across suitable ground to coincide with where people want to go—on foot, horseback, or cycle or with a buggy—the likelihood is that access will be curtailed. There is no point in maintaining an inviting gate in the fence if impenetrable woodland lies beyond.
The society does not have all the answers to these questions, but at the moment, planting is overwhelmingly driven by conservation-orientated considerations: public access and the cultural heritage of commoning receive less consideration.
Natural England, the driving force for most proposals, is quick to pursue its statutory purpose of promoting nature conservation, but its purposes to conserve the landscape, promote access to the countryside and encourage open-air recreation, and contribute towards social and economic well-being appear subsidiary.
The society will continue to review applications for fencing of woodland planting on a case-by-case basis but, when presented with an assessment of the benefits of diversity, we shall look for evidence of long-term plans which integrate the public interest in access, the landscape, sustainable communities, and the vitality of upland commoning.
Proposals which fit into an area-wide strategy, are honest about the longer-term, and seek to deliver on every aspect of the public interest, are more likely to receive our support.