The threat to Woodcote’s ancient woodland from ‘woodlotting‘
Birchen Copse is an area of Ancient Woodland outlined in blue on the map below that has been sold off in discrete lots by a company called Woods4Sale Ltd. Many local people have expressed their dismay at this development, where previously open woodland has been divided up and in some cases fenced off. This has been accompanied by the installation of surfaced tracks, sheds and notices, all of which has created an alien and hostile atmosphere in this part of the Chiltern woods on Woodcote’s doorstep. Objecting to what is happening in Birchen Copse is essential if we are to protect our wider local landscape from yet more inappropriate incursions.
The latest development in Birchen Copse involves a retrospective application for permission for a surfaced track that the plot-owner has already installed without seeking planning consent in the first place. We are therefore providing you with the following notes on two of the key terms in the context of these unwelcome developments: ‘Ancient Woods’ and ‘Woodlotting’. We hope you will find them useful for any comments or objections you may want to make to South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) – or indeed elsewhere – about this issue.
In the short term, the only option is to keep up pressure on SODC to do all they can to properly protect Birchen Copse and other woodland that is subjected to ‘lotting’ in the Chilterns.
- Like most of the woods in our area, Birchen Copse is designated an ‘Ancient Wood’ and as such has protection under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF sections 172 and 175). An ‘Ancient Wood’ does not necessarily mean a wood consisting of old trees: the important point is that the location must have been continuously wooded since 1600. Ancient Woods have a particular environmental integrity because of their development over the centuries, with soil, fungi and other factors being important. They also often have an ancient boundary bank and ditch around the edges, and historic routeways leading into them.
- Most woods that enjoy this designation are regarded as ‘semi-natural’: in other words, although they may have been managed in the past, they have since developed from naturally regenerated seed or coppice regrowth.
- Work in woods is controlled by the Forestry Commission under various Forestry Acts, and felling is regulated and normally requires a felling licence.
- ‘Woodlotting’ has become a problematic issue over the last twenty or so years. It typically happens when the traditional owner sells their wood to a specialist company which splits it up into several smaller units or ‘lots’, and then sells these on separately to make a profit. These companies have found that there is a demand from people to buy a little bit of woodland for a wide variety of reasons. These might include trying to manage the wood as a woodfuel resource, as a campsite, for educational visits, for family entertainment, for nature conservation, or for other hobbies.
- Some of these activities can be benign or even positive. Others, however, can threaten the condition of the wood and impact on the landscape and others’ enjoyment by installing fences, signs, tracks and buildings. In the worst cases the plot is used as a dumping ground, the ground is churned up by inappropriate activities, trees are felled, and assorted structures and containers are brought in.
- Likewise, inappropriate species, both trees and other plants, may be introduced, with the plot becoming a surrogate garden rather than a natural habitat. This in its turn can lead to the loss of native species, including some rare ones.
- From a conservation perspective, the larger the woodland area the better. Some issues such as tree health, pests and diseases, and drought and storm damage are better tackled at a larger, landscape scale, and ‘woodlotting’ can make this more difficult. At best, there will be a need – not always met – for neighbouring owners to cooperate and work together to resolve such issues.
- The worst examples of ‘woodlotting’ result from fraudulent mis-selling. This can take the form of suggesting to gullible potential purchasers that it might be possible to get planning permission to build in the wood, whilst knowing full well that the wood is ancient and/or in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and protected by a presumption against any development. Many purchasers have no experience of owning a wood, so need advice and assistance to manage it appropriately, and not fall foul of the UK Forestry Standard and other regulations.
- The Forestry Commission is concerned about these developments, and ‘woodlotting’ in general. It is looking at national policy to see how ancient woods can be better protected, but has no powers to stop people selling woods.
Woods4Sale and the ‘WOODLOTTING’ of BIRCHEN COPSE
- Birchen Copse is not only classified as an area of Ancient Woodland, but it is also located within the Chilterns AONB, and thus qualifies for a particularly high degree of protection.
- Prior to the sale of lots there, a Forestry Commission Felling Licence was applied for and issued in 2016. Using this licence, planning permission was then applied for and granted by SODC to extend and upgrade tracks through the wood to facilitate the extraction of timber.
- These tracks subsequently featured in the sales literature of the company, Woods4Sale, which highlighted site access for cars as one of the desirable features of the plots for sale. Needless to say, there has been no subsequent timber extraction to warrant this improved access.
- Woods4Sale also highlight on their website what they call ‘a welcome permissiveness’ in the legislation protecting woodland and forests, which is very weak compared with similar legislation relating to agricultural land: https://www.woods4sale.co.uk/information-pages/woodland-planning-permission/a-welcome-permissiveness-within-our-forests.htm.
- The claims on the Woods4Sale website have been largely borne out by what has happened at Birchen Copse, where SODC’s Enforcement Department have been unable or disinclined to take any effective action to limit the erection of huts, toilets and other structures and have not removed permitted development rights, as recommended by the Forestry Commission. (If these rights were removed it would mean that any development on site would require planning permission.)
- The Woodcote Conservation Group has written to John Howell MP on a number of occasions about this issue, and although he has raised it with various Government departments – such as DEFRA and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and also with Trading Standards – it is abundantly clear that any action taken to protect ancient woodlands and restrict ‘lotting’ of woodlands in the future will take some time.