The fury about the prospect of any so-called sell off of ?our? forests has been wonderfully orchestrated. Some of the disinformation has been spectacular. Perhaps more interesting are the casual assumptions made by the mainstream media. For example, in the recent debate, much has been made of the purported value of the Forestry Commission?s work to promote and protect ?access and wildlife?. Does anybody else notice the problem here? It is the assumption that public access and wildlife are somehow part of the same equation.
In fact, the two things are impeccably opposed. What many wild animals need is protection from disturbance caused by humans and their domestic pets. The same forests that are supposed to be teeming with wildlife are, at the same time, said to be havens for the urban masses. Having trashed nature in their own immediate neighbourhoods, these people demand their right to go out into the countryside and trash it, as well ? or am I being a tad cynical?
My scepticism is not necessarily an attack on public ownership, so much as unfettered public access, regardless of local circumstances. The MOD is a public body, yet its fi walkring ranges and training areas are wildlife havens. Why? Because parts of these areas are undisturbed by the public. The fact is, that wildlife prefers the odd blast of a 155mm howitzer shell to a daily confrontation with ramblers and dogs.
We have all heard horror stories of fanatical twitchers disturbing rare birds and even the RSPB has observed how well-meaning nature tourists can disrupt breeding capercaillie. Scottish Natural Heritage has documented how dog walkers made a section of the Scottish coast untenable for species of plover. The examples are endless.
Yet, in the current forest debate, public access has been portrayed as going with wildlife protection like a horse and carriage. As a sleight of hand, this is masterly. Or, do those who drive their pooches to the local forest in a pollution-spewing car, then leave them off the leash to root around in the undergrowth munching small mammals, really think they are at one with nature?
Permitting landowners? rights
One of the reasons why I am a fan of stewardship permissive access schemes is that they allow the landowner to provide the right sort of public access in the right place, taking wildlife into account. So, for example, I have provided a permissive footpath along a riverside bluff. This has nice views, much appreciated by walkers. At the same time, I have polite signs asking them to keep their dogs under control, because I don?t want them down in the stream (an otter highway) or out in the rushy fields, which are managed for waders. Amazingly, the system seems to work. The walkers are happy, I am happy and the wildlife is largely undisturbed. Unfortunately, schemes such as mine might be the last of their kind, because Natural England has imposed a moratorium on them. Indeed, it has even stopped funding farm visits for schoolchildren. Yet, at the same time that sensible, cost-effective, wildlife-friendly public access to the countryside is being curtailed, we see a huge, well-organised campaign to ?save our forests? (translation: ?save our quango-related jobs by stoking up scare stories?) predicated on the basis that access and wildlife must be protected. What a grand deception.
Truly, it has been said that when a piece of property belongs to everybody, it belongs to nobody. Just look at the 500 broadleaf heritage woodlands that, according to the Woodland Trust, have been neglected by the Forestry Commission and ask yourself why people are getting so misty-eyed about public ownership. I can only conclude that there are a huge number of what public sector unions might call ?useful idiots? out there.
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