I like to think I know what is going on, on Dartmoor but sometimes I really don’t. The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan is one such occasion. The Forestry Commission issued a consultation document in March on how it intended to manage its forest estate (Fernworthy, Bellever, Soussans and Brimpts) into the future. Comments had to be submitted by April.
You can download and read the Plan here – part 1, here – part 2, here – part 3, here – part 4 and here – part 5. There are also 4 appendices which you can read here for 1, here for 2, here for 3 and here for 4 – the consultation comments and replies.
I only found out about it a couple of weeks ago after being contacted by Matthew Kelly, the historian and author of Quartz and Feldspar who has written a blog about it (see here) and was seeking my view on it.
I think it must have been a pretty low profile consultation – nothing has appeared on my social media feeds about it for three months and it is often by that route I discover what is going on. I suspect that the FC sent consultation documents to their formal consultees and a select band of NGOs.
In essence the documents set out the FC’s plans up to 2046. Greater thought will be given to wildlife and archaeology, access will be encouraged but the primary plans centre on the Forests as places where commercial timber will be grown predominantly from conifer crops. There is a small increase of broadleaved species especially around the edges and there is a diversification of the species of conifer that will be planted.
Bellever Forest from Bellever Tor
The coming years will see the current crop (predominantly Sitka Spruce) mature and be clear felled. At Fernworthy for example 40% of the forest will be clear felled by 2031. Sitka Spruce monocultures will not be replanted as it is now considered that due to climate change the Forests need to be diversified to make them more resilient. Instead a mix of Sitka Spruce, Noble Fir, Pacific Silver Fir, Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce and Wellingtonia, plus in a few places Willow, Birch, Alder, Wych Elm, Swamp Cypress and Sycamore will be planted.
The 4 Dartmoor Forests in question were planted up (largely) in the 19th and early 20th centuries and managed by the FC (it is a complicated story which I have simplified here – see Quartz and Feldspar pp244-265 in the paperback edition for the full details). As well as being productive forests they have also become important places for wildlife in their own right harbouring a number of rare species such as goshawk, hobby, nightjar and for a short period of time Britain’s only breeding location for the red-backed shrike.
The FC acknowledges (and is indeed proud) of this wildlife asset and the plan addresses it. The Plan also takes steps to undo some of the brutalism of their earlier plantings where conifers were grown on top of Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs). Once the trees have been felled the SAMs will be left open and managed for their archaeology. This is a step forward but isolated SAMs within a forest environment is not the same as an open historic landscape from whence they came.
A stone circle adjacent to Soussans Forest.
The Plan also acknowledges the impact that forestry has on water quality. Conifers acidify the soil and therefore the water and when fellings occur sediment / soil ends up in the water courses and ultimately in the rivers. Acidified waters with a peaty sediment load are not good for river wildlife such as salmon, dippers and grey wagtails along with their invertebrate prey.
These issues are potentially significant at Fernworthy with its adjacent reservoir which many of us rely on for our own drinking water. There are lengthy comments from the Environment Agency and the Devon Wildlife Trust on this topic (in appendix 4) which the FC have taken on board in addition to their own initial mitigation plan.
The other comments from the conservation bodies (RSPB, DWT and DNPA) largely consist of advice around how the existing Forest based wildlife can be enhanced along with a few words urging a higher proportion of broadleaved plantings.
Interestingly the comments don’t include anything about the potential species the FC are proposing to plant. The FC have invested a lot of time and money into producing a database which enables foresters to select suitable species to plant against the backdrop of a changing climate – see here. You simply type in a number of site variables and the database provides you with a long list of suitable exotic trees to plant to make the forest / woodland more resilient to climate change.
I have been a long time sceptic of this approach. The FC (and the rest of Government) use the UK Climate Prediction 09 dataset (produced by the scientists at the Hadley Centre and the Met Office in Exeter) – see here. This model compared to the previous version acknowledges the considerable uncertainties and as a result provides a probabilistic approach to future climate scenarios. Firstly there are 3 emission scenarios Low, Medium and High – which one of these is the Earth currently embarking on regarding its emission of greenhouse gases? You have to choose one. You then choose a climate variable e.g. Summer Mean Maximum Temperature.
© UK Climate Projections 2009
And this is the outcome – so on Dartmoor under the medium emissions scenario by 2080 the change in maximum summer temperature is very unlikely to be less than 3 degree C and very unlikely to be more than 9 degrees C. That is quite a range!
The maps also come with a health warning from the Met Office. “These maps are useful to communicate the main results of UKCP09 and raise awareness about climate change. When presenting UKCP09 projections using maps you should use a series of maps to show the range of possible outcomes. Here we have put together maps in series of 3 (showing the 10%, 50 % and 90% probability levels) for a range of climate variables. They are available for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s and for low, medium and high emissions scenarios.”
DEFRA however in their document ‘Adapting to Climate Change – UK Climate predictions’, download here, present the data in a very different way which gives the outcome a much more predictable fate.
They have decided to use the 50% probability estimates (calling them ‘central estimates’) i.e. there is a 50% chance they will be lower than this and a 50% chance they will be higher.
This data is what is used in the FC tree species selection database which could be interpreted as meaning there is a 50% chance the right species have been selected and 50% chance they might be wrong! Foresters from the FC have got ‘previous’ on this – during their fanatical campaign to plant up the Flow Country in northern Scotland Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine were planted over tens of thousands of acres damaging internationally important peatlands until it was discovered that it was too wet and the tree wouldn’t grow. Conservationists make fun of foresters by saying they don’t need to be accountable for their decisions because by the time it is discovered that a mistake has been made they will have either retired or died. The question for me therefore remains have the FC chosen the right species?
Another curious thing about the Dartmoor Forest Plan in addition to the fact that very few people have heard about is who wasn’t formally consulted. On the surface this may seem a very innocuous matter – the FC is consulting with its close band of stakeholders to sharpen up its thinking. However the history of forestry on Dartmoor tells a very different story which is beautifully described by Matthew Kelly in Quartz and Feldspar. In essence decades of the 20th century saw huge battles between the FC and various preservationists led by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Had it not been for their efforts the conifer plantations may have stretched continuously from Bellever to Fernworthy! It was really only in the 1980s that things calmed down as the FC metamorphosed into a more environmentally friendly organisation.
I have looked at the websites of the Dartmoor Preservation Association’s and the Dartmoor Society and can find no reference to the Dartmoor Forest Plan. I get the feeling that like me they missed the consultation because I am certain that if they had been consulted they would have had something to say!
I am also surprised that Chagford Parish Council didn’t respond to their formal consultation – over the next 15 years 40% of Fernworthy will be clear felled – that is around 570 acres of conifer plantation and all of the vehicle movements will go through Chagford……. It isn’t easy negotiating Chagford and the subsequent road up to Fernworthy in a VW Golf let along a double six wheel forestry wagon.
I am also intrigued by the DNPA’s position. The comments from them in appendix 4 are from their Senior Ecologist and are specific technical issues relating to nature conservation but the section starts “our Senior ecologist has some additional comments to add”. However the DNPA’s comments which apparently precede this are not published! I wonder what their view is? A previous head of the DNPA Ian Mercer in his Collins New Naturalist book ‘Dartmoor’ said the following regarding Hawns and Dandles conifers – “wholesale removal of a living eyesore (to moorland devotees) has happened at public expense…..“. The DNPA as an organisation don’t like the conifers on the high moor!
I wonder whether the DNPA urged the FC either to not replant or replant with broadleaved trees opposed to alien conifers?
It is also interesting that no comments were received from the Woodland Trust or the National Trust – their partnership project at Fingle Woods would surely have been relevant?
As a result the FC have managed to carry out a very low profile consultation on how they should replant and manage their Forest Estate on Dartmoor without stirring up a debate about whether there should indeed be conifer plantations on the high moor in a National Park, the conservation bodies appear also to have been compliant to this by sticking to their consultation brief.
A couple of months before the consultation George Monbiot was on Dartmoor proselytising about re-wilding. I’m sure if George or Rewilding Britain (the charity he helped form) had known about the Dartmoor Forest Plan they too would have had something to say.
Ironically, whilst the conservationists have been compliant or caught napping or living in blissful ignorance it has taken a historian to come up with a more exciting future vision. In his blog entitled The Dartmoor Forestry Plan. Questioning Conventional Thinking he says:-
This is a moment of opportunity for Dartmoor. The Dartmoor Forestry Plan, despite its progressive gestures, suggests this will be missed. When conventional thinking no longer chimes with the public mood it should be challenged.
Could not at least one of the FC’s Dartmoor holdings be dedicated solely to native broadleaf planting? It is hard to exaggerate what an exciting development this would be for Dartmoor nature. My vote goes to Fernworthy.
The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan indeed!