Background Info

According to 2018 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, protecting and restoring the world’s forests could reduce global emissions by 18 percent by 2030.

Year after year we watch in horror as vast forests in the Amazon, USA, Australia and elsewhere go up in flames. Meanwhile, governments around the world are failing to live up to promises to plant trillions of saplings that will not mature enough to capture meaningful amounts of carbon for decades.  It is therefore unacceptable that Scotland’s remaining ancient, native and semi-native woodlands and woodland floors have next to no effective legal protection and can be destroyed on a whim.

According to the Woodland Trust, ancient woodland covers only around 1% of Scotland’s land area.

Sir David Attenborough has said: “The future of humanity and indeed all life on Earth depends on us.”   A local ‘lockdown’ event has exposed a national tragedy around just how vulnerable Scotland’s remaining pockets of ancient woodlands really are. During lockdown a mountain bike trail was constructed, with the landowner’s permission, through a small, beautiful, very mature and intensively grazed, ancient woodland that previously had an almost pristine, densely packed native bluebell carpet.   Thousands of bluebells (and other native wildflowers) were destroyed, decaying timbers were sawn up and used to create jumps and berms, and small branches were cut to clear part of the trail.  The trail was built during the nesting season, disturbing at least one buzzard pair who had a nest directly above the trail and another nest nearby in the wood.  Informal wildlife surveys have revealed the wood also supports other protected raptors including owls and sparrowhawks, plus European protected species such as otters and bats.  Woodpeckers, hedgehogs, mice voles and other animals are also resident in the wood. The ecosystem pyramid that supports life in this ancient woodland was being destroyed.

The trail did not conform to guidance around the safe construction of mountain bike trails and, although we understand no official has visited the site, we have been informed the bike trail would not need planning permission as it is of mud and timber construction. Additional threats to this wood are that the old stone boundary wall, probably built to stop livestock straying into the gorge and to manage the woodland as a resource, is now in ruins and cattle and deer intensively graze the woodland floor every year.  The existing trees are mature and no saplings are able to survive.  Thus, without help, much of this wood (in common with many other ancient and native woods) is unlikely to survive beyond this century.  Lastly, a gorge cuts through the wood and on the southern boundary a large estate is being demolished. Windblown polystyrene and other debris has littered the south side of the wood and burn at the bottom of the gorge. We, and others, have complained to SEPA and tried to remove the debris ourselves.

It therefore appears no effective legislation exists to protect Scotland’s ancient and native woodlands, rare habitats, woodland floors, native bluebells and other wild plants, nesting birds or other wildlife when landowner permission is granted for developments such as mountain bike trails.
The desecration of a small, ancient, irreplaceable habitat is unacceptable and we understand many new trails have been created in woodlands and other green spaces across Scotland during lockdown. Knowledge of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code is limited and, in addition to new legislation, there is clearly an urgent need for greater respect and more effective education around protecting our environment.

According to the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS) only 4-5% of native and semi-native woodland (including ‘ancient’) cover remains in Scotland (down from a high of 80% woodland cover 5,000 years ago).  The Survey concludes that ‘…the current amount and distribution of regeneration [of Scotland’s native and semi-native woodlands] is not yet enough to sustain all of our current native woodland resource in the long term’.

Therefore we urge:

1. this Scottish Government to use the NWSS to inform a process to grant full legal protection for all ancient and semi-native woodlands greater than 0.5 hectares;
2. a new classification of ancient and semi-natural native bluebell woods to be included in future surveys;
3. new, simple and unequivocal regulation on how our ancient and native woodlands must be managed respectfully from now onwards;
4. the Government to provide incentives to landowners to protect these woodlands from inappropriate development, over grazing by livestock, neglect, misuse, pollution, fly-tipping and other damaging activities;
5. the Government and partner organisations to ensure local communities know where their ancient and native woodlands are, why they are priceless and irreplaceable, and why they must be protected; and
6. that woodland floors of ancient, native and semi-natural woodlands are recognised as irreplaceable and finite assets and that they are properly assessed and classified in EIAs and are afforded the classification of ‘sensitive’.  No mitigation for disturbance or destruction of woodland floors is currently required by any Environmental Impact good practice guidelines or protocols.  Developments such as mountain bike tracks and paths with the landowner’s permission appear not to require planning consent and as they are not classed as Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 developments The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Scotland) Regulations 2017 do not appear to apply.  Again The Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 applies only to agricultural development and do not adequately provide for assessment or protection to our native woodland floors.  We urge the Scottish Government to address the current shortcomings in existing legislation to ensure Scotland’s diminishing, rich, biodiverse woodland floors, formed over hundreds of years, are protected from damage and destruction.  Planning permission for any development, including paths and trails, (i.e. altering the status quo) should be required by statute.  Where disturbance for emergencies cannot be avoided, appropriate mitigation measures to minimise the impact, including establishing new areas of native planting to compensate the loss, should be required.

The National Planning Framework 4 includes six high level outcomes, including:

• improving the health & wellbeing of people living in Scotland;
• meeting any targets relating to the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases; and
• securing positive effects for biodiversity.

We strongly argue that giving full legal protection to Scotland’s remaining ancient and native woodlands meets all three and we aspire to a future Scotland that respects and protects our precious trees.

(Note: Scotland’s ancient and native woodlands are mentioned in rafts of guidance and policy documents relating to forestry and environmental management, usually linked with economic development and planning.  Nowhere in these documents was an unequivocal message around legislation protecting our ancient and native woodlands to be found.)

• Section 8 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, section 13(2), which prohibits the sale or advertising for sale of native bluebells.  We believe this act no longer protects our native bluebells from current real threats.

• Forestry & Land Management Scotland Act 2018. Landowners can legally fell up to 20 cubic metres of trees (or four mature oak trees) in any small ancient or semi-natural woodland larger than 0.5 hectares each year. This is regardless of whether the trees present a danger to life or property. We believe the felling of up to four mature oak trees each year is too large a burden for a small wood to be sustainable and represents an unacceptable disturbance to the ecosystem.

• The Scottish Forestry Commission’s 2009 Control of Woodland Removal 2009 states woodland removal with compensatory planting is most likely to be appropriate where it would contribute significantly to encouraging recreational activities and public enjoyment….There will be a ‘strong presumption’ against removing certain types of woodland, including ancient and semi-natural woodland.  We believe this guidance with no teeth and the focus on recreational activities and public enjoyment is no longer acceptable and ancient woodlands must be valued in their own right for their unique biodiversity and carbon capture.

In an increasingly complex world where people are confused and overwhelmed with information, our priceless remaining ancient, native and semi-native woodland cover must now have full legal protection that is simple to understand, clearly communicated and unequivocal.  It is not acceptable that it is legal to continue to exploit, vandalise and disrespect our remaining outstanding natural assets and pass on a further degraded Scotland and home to future generations.

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