Threestoneburn Forest - a lost opportunity for a new wildwood


Upland and coastal locations in Britain experience extremes in climate that are potentially shaping of the landscape in distinctive ways that owe nothing to human influence. I go back often to some coastal locations because of this wild quality, but upland locations are resoundingly disappointing. Our uplands have suffered from their exploitability such that there is little representation of a wild vegetation cover as would be shown by a natural tree line and the montane scrub that should exist above that, all lost to the effects of clearance and livestock (1). On the contrary, woodland and montane scrub as natural habitats are exceedingly under represented in the uplands in a wicked defiance of what can be considered as the natural order. In spite of this, our uplands receive almost universal paeans of praise as some treasured outcome of our cultural past and present.

There was a rare call to re-vision our uplands last year. Adrian Philips gave a speech about our National Parks (many are upland) in which he identified their failings (2):
"the wild places within our parks are now so much less wild than they were, and so much less wild than can be found in parks in other parts of the world, even nearby in Europe, that they no longer provide that challenge to our citizens – young people especially - that the founding fathers had in mind"

He said that the time had come to think anew about the place of the parks in our national life, and that we should give up on some long established ideas. One of these was “the assumption that we should struggle to keep the traditional landscapes of all parts of our parks, even if this is not economic over the long term”

However, the received wisdom is heavily weighted towards maintaining that cultural stranglehold on the uplands, as is shown by the recent announcement about a new stewardship scheme for upland farms in England that is in effect a continuation of the Hill Farm Allowance, a subsidy that keep farmers in place exploiting the marginal land in the uplands. On its launch, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said (3):
"The uplands are absolutely fundamental to the English countryside. So much of our history, our art, our literature and our sense of identity are tied up in these glorious landscapes, and it is right that we should ensure that farmers are rewarded for looking after them”

This over-cooked rhetoric must have been supplied by a PR officer in DEFRA, but it is pretty much in line with the orthodoxy that is the background to the scheme. Thus from DEFRA on the English Uplands (4):
“Agriculture activity has played a large part in shaping these valuable upland landscapes, and continues to provide many of the tools with which to manage them”

As much as I thoroughly disagree with all those sentiments, I also disagree with a subsidy that will pay farmers to “Remove discarded plastic bags and wrap” (5). Why should we pay farmers to pick up their own rubbish?

There is a great deal of largely anecdotal evidence used by vested interests in upland management (farming, game shooting, biodiversity conservation, water etc) that claims a "crucial importance" of continuing existing land management regimes as a way of securing ecosystem services, but without much scientific data to back this up. It can come across as so much conflicting "evidence", often just individual opinion, without any grounding of this received wisdom in reality. This is exemplified by a recent article in the Guardian that free-ranged over the issues, identifying over-grazing as a problem, threw in the obligatory reference nowadays to carbon stores and sloppy peat, but then essentially maintained the uplands dogma (6):
“National parks say that if the sheep and cattle go, there will be a knock-on effect on precious environments. The high moors are effectively a manmade environment and if grazing stops and is not replaced by other management, scrub and trees will begin to grow”

What’s the damage in that? Well, Maurice Retallick, 65, who farms 500 cattle and 200 sheep in the Dartmoor National Park, gave this profound answer (6):
"The vegetation will grow and it won't be accessible for the walkers. The birds that thrive on the moor will vanish. Water quality will be affected – the water that comes off Dartmoor is some of the cleanest in the country. The walls won't be maintained, communities will die and the tourists will stop coming"

This is a dreadful litany of self-serving nonsense. What if, instead, we paid for that rewilding of the uplands as a mechanism of securing improved ecosystem services - water quality, flood protection, carbon stores/sequestration, recreational landscapes, habitat and biodiversity improvements, etc. - instead of using the money to subsidise marginal agriculture? Because of cultural conditioning, it may be that this will only be achievable through a nationalisation of critical areas of the uplands, but this would move the UK system of protected areas to a level consistent with almost all other European countries where their National Parks are publicly owned wildlands, practically free of agricultural exploitation.

The drivers at work in the uplands

A week or so ago, I came across a contemporary event in which many of the drivers in the uplands are at work. It touches on areas such as plantation forestry in the uplands, long derided for its unsympathetic appearance; the pervasiveness of shooting interests and the carnage of wild nature that is their byproduct; the lack of wildness in our national parks and their place in public life; and the role of stakeholders in deliberative processes. What I hope it will also do, is address the accusation of a disconnection between the human and environmental as perceived by opponents of rewilding, which is in effect a separation by degrees, as it becomes a new relationship in a new system of protected areas.

The contemporary event is the application for a felling licence to clear fell a conifer plantation in the Northumberland National Park. It comes from Lilburn Estates, the new owner of the 712 hectares of Threestoneburn Forest (pronounced ‘Thristonburn’) near Wooler, bought from the Forestry Commission (FC) in January 2007 for about £1.3m. Lilburn Estates is owned by Duncan Davison (personal wealth £124m) who founded the building firm Persimmons. His family owns and farms 12,500ha in Northumberland.

Under the Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) Regulations 1999, the Estate has to submit a comprehensive Environmental Statement (ES) to the FC before a felling licence is considered. The ES has to include a description of the aspects of the environment likely to be significantly affected by the proposed project, and of the measures envisaged in order to avoid, reduce and if possible, remedy significant adverse effects. It is thus a range of documents that become part of a process of public consultation, and which gives us a valuable resource to inquire into (7).

The Lilburn Estate has been this way before with the purchase in 1999 of Wooler Common and Commonburn Forestry Plantations from the FC. As it did with those, it wants to clear fell Threestoneburn Forest and convert it to moorland to increase yet again the area of grouse moor of the Lilburn Estate. The felling of a million trees (sitka spruce and some larch) will require new roads in, quarrying to provide road material etc, and will result in a significant raising of the water table plus some run-off and siltation issues in the burns that drain the Forest area (8).

The proposal indicates a clear fell over the short period of three to four years, with a reversion of habitat after felling such that there will be an increase in blanket bog from 64ha to 296ha, and heathland (both wet and dry) from 60ha to 292ha. This fits with what is portrayed as current conservation priorities, both these habitats being considered as "internationally important" in the ES, and contributing to targets of the Habitat Action Plans and Species Action Plans of the Local Biodiversity Action Plan of the Northumberland Biodiversity Partnership. The raising of the water table that will occur after felling will of course assist with the rewetting and reversion to bog. It is noted that this reversion expands these habitats already present in the adjacent and large area of the Cheviot Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Native broad leaf trees are intended to increase from 2ha to 67ha. Planting will be targeted at riparian zones of the Threestone and Harelaw Burns, as the various ecological surveys have shown these to be the areas of present wildlife value and with great fragility. Woodland is only described as a "nationally important" habitat in the ES, and it is often the case that woodland is given only a utilitarian perspective, rather than an appreciation as “wildlife” in itself (see 9). The proposed felling of 568ha of conifer will release around 150000tCO2 and the proposed riparian planting will only replace 6% of this. But the ES adopts the current orthodoxy that the "mitigation and enhancement" achieved through the raising of the water table and habitat reversion to bog will prevent further loss of CO2. This is not equivalent in any way to an offset, but gets trotted out endlessly in support of sloppy peat.

A criticism of the proposal has been concern over the extraction route through the Breamish Valley where a new 1.5km road is planned and a 6.5km track upgraded to carry the 150,000 tonnes of saleable timber. Coun Anthony Murray, member for Wooler on Northumberland County Council, said (10):
"I don't want to see the extraction route through the Breamish Valley because of the impact it will have on residents living there and, just as importantly, the visitors who we have been trying to encourage"

The Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) came out in favour of the proposal at a special meeting, bar one dissenting voice from Coun Dougie Watkin, member for Norham and Islandshires on Northumberland County Council, who considered that the Park Authority had a duty towards red squirrels (11). He noted the impact on the red squirrel population in Threestoneburn Forest if the proposal went ahead (10):
“Red squirrel populations have reached the point where they are extremely close to extinction and this authority is speeding up that process by agreeing this plan.
This is an iconic species, both for Northumberland and the national park. If a population can be maintained there by proper management of the forest I think it is something that would greatly add to the national park. Lilburn Estates have tried to come up with a workable solution but given the effort that is going into saving red squirrels and the fact we have a known population at Threestoneburn, to actually consider ripping the floor from under them sits very uneasy on my shoulders

Given the expert advice from two reports on the red squirrel population of 60 or so in Threestoneburn Forest, the ES concluded:
"The proposed deforestation of Threestoneburn will have serious negative effects on the population of red squirrels currently inhabiting the property”

The expert advice was that the best hope would be that the red squirrels, protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981, could migrate safely to a new location via the wooded watercourse of the Lilburn Valley to the east (this is an alder and juniper SSSI – see later) but even then upon leaving the forest, the red squirrels would have to cross open ground to get to this woodland. One expert report called for a longer phasing of the felling to allow the new riparian plantings to gains some growth, or instead to use quick growing conifers at close spacing to create a new corridor there. They noted anyway that any felling plan should be designed to ensure that the red squirrels do not become isolated, by maintaining connectivity through the remaining mature conifer habitat to facilitate red squirrel movement (12). The other expert poured cold water on any mitigation, indicating that whatever restructuring of the Forest went on, the threat from advancing grey squirrels, and the harmful disease they carried, presaged the end of this local population of red squirrels if the Forest was cleared (13).

There are also concerns in the ES at the threat to the otters that occupy the riparian zones, and the scale of the intended operations and its consequent disturbance will require licensing because of the multiply protected status of this mammal e.g. Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981 and EU Habitats Directive 1992. This disturbance factor will also impact on the likely badger setts deep in the plantation, the badgers and their setts being protected under the Badgers Act 1992.

It is because of the certain loss of the red squirrels that the Northumberland Wildlife Trust has objected to the proposal. Steve Lowe, its head of conservation said (14):
“Under normal circumstances, it is felt that Northumberland Wildlife Trust would probably support the proposal in principle. We can see that, properly implemented, it would lead to landscape scale benefits including the restoration or recreation of upland habitats. However, we consider that this potential is outweighed by the forest’s important red squirrel population and the proposal, as it stands, does not address this issue”

This must have been a difficult decision for the wildlife trust. It would be expected that they would support the proposal because it runs with the uplands orthodoxy that wildlife trusts rarely step outside of. But it is not just the loss of red squirrels that will go with the felling of the Forest: the crossbills and the breeding pair of goshawks will go, as will a range of other woodland breeding species such as merlin, sparrowhawk, buzzard, song thrush, long-eared owl, siskin, coal tit, and woodcock. The loss of these is not considered a significant demerit in the ES, in spite of their local scarcity, and the level of protection of some of them. Instead the ES points to the in-migration that there will potentially be of open landscape birds such as short-eared owl, curlew, snipe, lapwing, red grouse, stonechat, meadow pipit, hen harrier, black grouse, grey partridge, skylark, ring ousel and reed bunting. This upland bird assemblage is characteristic of the Cheviot SSSI, and is a commonality of many of the Special Protection Areas in our uplands, which is unsurprising since we are said to have 40% of the European habitat that supports this assemblage (about 3,000,000ha).

Another evictee will be the roe deer population in Threestoneburn Forest, regarded to be between 60-100, and who will be assumed to disperse during the felling into "suitable habitat" in the Langleeford Valley to the North, Breamish Valley to the South and Ilderton Dene to the East. These deer would be wise during their dispersal to avoid stepping onto land to the immediate North and East of Threestoneburn Forest that is owned by the Lilburn Estates as they will fall foul of the gamekeepers employed in those areas, who as part of their remit, control deer numbers. On average they have been shooting 90 deer per annum on the estate. It is the estates intention to cull the deer more heavily during the period of the deforestation.

I find no reference in the ES to the re-instatement of predator control from game keeping that will undoubtedly occur with the change of use to grouse moor after felling. As is evidenced above by the culling of roe deer, it does note that the adjacent land surrounding the forest is all intensively managed grouse moor, and one argument in the ES is that if the forest was to be retained, “it would be impossible to fully integrate its management with the surrounding land-use, as it would harbour predatory species such as crows and foxes which would have a severe impact on the moor-land bird species”

It is a measure of our lack of internal analysis about upland landscape use and conservation that the clear felling and conversion to grouse moor will bring about a resumption of the wholesale slaughter by gamekeepers of foxes, corvids (crows, magpies, jackdaws and rooks), and mustelids (stoats and weasels, but any pine marten are unlikely to be safe either, even though they are protected species). An irony totally lost on current conservation orthodoxy is that this predator control is claimed to be a safeguard for the upland bird assemblage beloved of conservation professionals, as it is for the commercial viability of grouse shoots. There is also good reason to believe that several species of birds of prey would be commoner in the NNP were it not for illegal persecution of various kinds that is likely related to sporting management. These include merlin, peregrine, buzzard, goshawk, and hen harrier (15).

The period of public consultation on the ES closed on 23 November 2008. The Forestry Commission will decide early next year on whether to approve the felling license. Responding to the ES consultation would not have addressed my concerns, which go to the real issues that were at stake at Threestoneburn Forest.

Why has the FC been selling off plantations in the Northumberland NP (and cheaply)?
One answer is that the NNPA had blocked a Forest Design Plan for Threestoneburn Forest put forward by the FC in 1997 that would have seen a gradual restructuring and transformation, with the sharp edges of the plantation reduced, no replanting on the upper slopes and around rock outcrops, a widening of riparian zones and their planting with broadleaves, and clearing some open space on the northern boundary for Black grouse habitat (16). Instead the NNPA demanded a plan with a clear cut, no replanting but with a restoration of moorland, and some riparian planting. This is a template for what the Lilburn Estate subsequently carried out on Wooler Common and Commonburn Forestry Plantations, and what they now intend for Threestoneburn Forest.

Should the NNPA determine landscape policy for publicly owned land?
The NNPA have used their position over the years to argue against any long term economic use of those FC plantations, openly seeking their removal from the landscape scene. In effect, the NNPA blighted Wooler Common and Commonburn Forestry Plantations and Threestoneburn Forest such that, in the absence of any other remit for this publicly owned land, they became a liability for the FC. This goes to the question of whose interests the NNPA serve? It is said that half the Northumberland NP has only four major landowners - the Northumberland Estates, the Ministry of Defence, College Valley Estates and the Lilburn Estates. The approach of the NNPA would thus appear to favour a consolidation of private ownership and a homogenisation of vegetation cover, derived from a cultural landscape use. In their decisions, they have certainly aided the Lilburn Estate in furthering and increasing its grouse shooting interests.

Why was the Allers and Lilburn Valley Junipers SSSI not considered as a linking-in feature of significance for nature conservation for Threestoneburn Forest?
This SSSI to the east is an area of relict juniper woodland and ancient alder woodland. Juniper woodland is rare in Northumberland and this site is one of the largest in the county with bushes of varied ages. Alder woodland has a restricted distribution in Northumberland and rarely occurs in extensive stands. Both woodland types are under threat principally from grazing which prevents regeneration, and which will undoubtedly be the management prescription for the new area of grouse moor created by felling Threestoneburn Forest. How does the Lilburn Estate intend to protect the new riparian corridor woodland from this livestock grazing after the tree guards come off? Like so much else of our upland woodland, it will inevitably decline as natural regeneration is prevented by the grazing.

Why instead wasn’t this valuable piece of upland given a public purpose?
The publicly owned Threestoneburn Forest could have been the forerunner for our public land delivering on a new agenda of virtue for recreation, education and spiritual renewal on a large scale - of an upland native wild woodland that would have included juniper and alder as well as other native trees and shrubs. As it is, the Forest is on the route of a number of long distance, circular walks in the National Park, and a new wildwood with the open access that it already has would have been a rich addition to the experience of any walk. The presence of the existing trees (albeit a conifer plantation now) shows there is no bar to woodland growing there, and there is already an existing woodland ecology of birds and mammals grown up around that, as well as the soils being transformed by the woodland cover. I am supported in this view by a report on new wildwoods in Britain that recognised the appeal and practicality of converting conifer plantations to initiate new wildwoods in the uplands (17). Moreover, it would have made an excellent contribution to increasing the very low native woodland cover in the NNP – there is only 747ha of native woodland, a coverage of less than 1% (18). There is a HAP for woodland in the LBAP that has target actions for upland oak, upland mixed ash and wet woodland (19), but as is often the case, it has the lowest of priorities in the orthodoxy when heath and bog are also in the equation, and this comes through strongly in the ES and in the deliberations of the NNPA.

Why isn’t this alternative of rewilding ever considered?
Well, the NNPA should read their own documents. This passage comes from "A vision and plans for the future" in their Biodiversity Action Plan (15):
"The development of wilder areas, which has been included in past Corporate Finance Plans (CFP) could contribute to the BAP targets. In practice there is a continuum between true wilderness and small scale conservation schemes. Where an opportunity for large schemes becomes available e.g. large forestry plantations, the NPA will wish to explore the possibilities with its partners and examine the landscape and socio-economic consequences with the local community before committing itself"

Perhaps that is what led them to explore new wild land as a means of securing the public benefits of ecosystem services a few years ago during the term of an externally funded Land Management Initiative (20). However, the assumption was that the farmers themselves would deliver on this new wild land, which of course they rejected as it did not “offer a commercial opportunity under current circumstances”. They are given this veto because the basis of our protected area legislation is that wild nature has to co-exist in our cultural landscapes because our designation of protected areas or landscapes – whether NP, AONB, SSSI, SPA, SAC etc – is blind to ownership. Hence the very clear need for new wild land projects to be initiated on publicly owned land, as could have been the case for the FC plantations, which should have been retained rather than sold.

The NNPA have also considered the reintroduction of extinct species such as wild boar, wolf, lynx and beaver (21) but quickly backed off at the prospect of farmers and shooting interests complaining that their livelihoods would be threatened (22) this again supporting the need for publicly owned land unshackled by the veto of vested interest.

Soule and Noss in writing about rewilding and its contribution to biodiversity and nature conservation said (23):
“The greatest impediment to rewilding is an unwillingness to imagine it”

Our failure to rewild land though is not just hampered by a lack of imagination, it is our underwhelming aspiration for wild nature in Britain. The publicly owned land of the FC is 4% of the area of Britain, but where is the will to use that publicly owned land estate for new wildland? In the selling off of Threestoneburn Forest by the Forestry Commission, we have lost a significant opportunity, and the souls of those displaced red squirrels will never forgive us for this.

Mark Fisher 30 December 2008

(1) Above the Tree Line, Tim Clifford, Trees for Life

(2) National Parks in the 21st Century – Time to Face Reality, speech by Adrian Philips to the National Park Society Conference, 4 November 2007

(3) New funding to help hill farmers protect historic uplands, DEFRA News Release Ref: 395/08 18 December 2008

(4) The English Uplands, DEFRA

(5) Index of Uplands ELS Options and Requirements, DEFRA

(6) Loss of hill farms could destroy rare upland landscape, experts warn, Steve Morris, Guardian 7 November 2008

(7) Threestoneburn, Environmental Impact Assessments, Forestry Commission North East

(8) Environmental Statement For Threestoneburn Forest - Deforestation and Habitat Restoration Proposals, Scottish Woodlands Ltd September 2008$FILE/nee-eia-tsb-forest-env-statement.pdf

(9) Delivery Plan for England's Woods, Trees and Forests Strategy, Forestry Commission

(10) Park authority backs plans to fell 1 million trees in Cheviots, Ian Smith, Berwick Advertiser 26 November 2008

(11) Draft Minutes, Special Meeting of the Northumberland National Park Authority, 20 November 2008

(12) Red Squirrel Survey of Threestoneburn Forest, Northumberland, SFA Surveys July 2007$FILE/nee-eia-appendix-7-threestoneburn-report.pdf

(13) Threestoneburn Forest – Red Squirrel Conservation Assessment, P.W.W. Lurz, University of Newcastle$FILE/nee-eia-appendix-7-threestoneburn-lurz.pdf

(14) Trust says nuts to squirrel plan, Tony Henderson, The Journal 13 Dec 2008

(15) Biodiversity Action Plan, NNP 2007

(16) Appendix 17 - Forestry Commission restructuring plans for forest$FILE/nee-eia-appendix-17.pdf

(17) New Wildwoods in Britain: The potential for developing new landscape-scale native woodlands, R.Worrell, S. N. Pryor, A. Scott, G.F. Peterken,K. Taylor, R. Knightbridge and N. Brown. LUPG report June 2002

(18) A survey of the extent and condition of Ancient Woodlands in Northumberland, Kit Brown, Northumberland Native Woodland Project  July 2006$FILE/nee-ancient-woodland-report.pdf

(19) Native Woodland Habitat Action Plan, Northumberland Biodiversity Action Plan

(20) New wild land, Northumberland National Park Land Management Initiative, Report on Research and Development August 2000 to March 2003

(21) Reintroducing Extinct Species, Hot Topics, NNPA

(22) Where Northumberland National Park stands on this issue, Reintroducing Extinct Species - Your views and our views! Hot Topics, NNPA

(23) Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Michael Soulé & Reed Noss, Wild Earth, Wildlands Project Fall 1998