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29/07/2021

The value of updating the Ancient Woodland Inventory and why it matters to planners

Enhancements to the Ancient Woodland Inventory will give planning authorities greater power to protect a vital, but dwindling, asset, explains Louise Hutchby

‘Ancient woodland’ describes woods with centuries of continuity on relatively undisturbed soils. This continuity of woodland conditions over long time periods has led to the development of complex and valuable ecological communities, a vital resource from which to expand nature-rich and resilient landscapes. 

Sadly, over time many ancient woods have been lost or damaged – by clearance for development, or establishment of invasive species such as rhododendron.

Protection is provided in the NPPF’s section 175c, which states: “When determining planning applications, local planning authorities should apply the following principles: development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons…”

“We can only protect and improve management of ancient woodlands if we know where they are”

However, we can only protect and improve management of ancient woodlands if we know where they are. The Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI) was first developed in the 1980s as a paper-based map. Without the benefits of modern mapping technology, it inevitably contained errors and, crucially, did not include the small woods of less than two hectares that are so vital for connecting up our landscape.

The Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI) update project was set up in 2019. A five-year, £2.5 million project, tit is working with local environmental record centres (LERCs) so that this work can be delivered at a county level, incorporating the vast expertise and local knowledge facilitated by LERCs. Significant financial contributions and support are being provided to enable this. County-level local partnerships are also being sought to further facilitate the work and secure funding.

Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable resource. Its protection and enhancement will make a powerful contribution to counter the climate emergency.

When complete, the AWI update project will provide an accurate evidence base which includes small woods. This will enable local planning authorities to produce and implement policies to protect and enhance this resource.

The AWI update project complements Natural England and the Forestry Commission’s standing advice on ancient woodland, which is currently under review.

Louise Hutchby is Natural England’s programme manager for the Ancient Woodland Inventory update

Image Credit | Shutterstock

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