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How can planning better serve ancient woodland?

It's great that government wants to protect our dwindling ancient woodland, says Victoria Bankes Price, but action is needed now – and planners are integral to that

Ancient woodland takes thousands of years to evolve and is the most species-rich land habitat. Yet it is not a formal designation, and the ancient woodland inventory is only provisional. Thus, the sites on the inventory are subject to change as more ancient woodland is identified and recorded. There is no formal record of ancient woodland sites destroyed, so we know only that less than 3 per cent of the UK is covered with this irreplaceable habitat.

It does not always look as we imagine it; what may simply look like a stand of conifers can, on closer inspection, be a plantation on ancient woodland site (PAWS), an old ancient woodland site that was clear felled and replaced with a commercial timber stand.

These sites can be restored to their former glory. They enjoy the same level of protection as ancient semi-natural woodland in the NPPF.  Likewise, our ancient and veteran trees are valued for everything from their cultural contributions to the landscape to their biodiversity value. Their ancient status is dependent on their species not just their age.

This all presents a confusing picture for planners, a view reinforced by a Woodland Trust survey of 500 planners last summer. The feedback was that although planners were aware of ancient woodland (96 per cent knew the term), they were not using the existing tools available.

"There are more than 300 ancient woodlands under threat from development in England and nearly 200 more that are subject to site allocations"

The biggest concerns emerging were that only 33 per cent of respondents were aware of the Ancient Woodland Inventory (the Natural England held inventory on ancient woodland) and only 21 per cent used the Standing Advice for Ancient Woodland and Aged and Veteran Trees produced by the Forestry Commission and Natural England.

In its housing white paper, the government says it wants to improve ancient woodland protection in the NPPF. This is great but we need to take action now.

Trust records show there are more than 300 ancient woodlands under threat from development in England and nearly 200 more that are subject to site allocations. The existing provisions are clearly failing ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees.

Half of the survey respondents wanted to learn more, so the trust has worked with Mike Oxford of the Association of Local Government Ecologists to produce a Planners’ Manual for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees. This details what ancient woodland is, how development affects it and how best to buffer it from development. The manual has been sent to all local planning authorities in England – and if you want a copy you can find it online or you can contact the trust.

Victoria Bankes Price MRTPI is a planning adviser to the Woodland Trust


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