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Britain's Woodland Heritage Can't Speak for Itself - Can We Be the Voice It Needs?

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A new initiative will now make it possible to offset the loss of nationally important buildings by mitigating with new-builds elsewhere. Westminster Abbey will be reduced to rubble to make way for a shopping centre and replaced by a wonderful contemporary structure in Didcot. York Minster will be razed to make way for a vast car production plant, and be replaced with a fabulous new place of worship in Market Weighton. The former site of the Houses of Parliament will be demolished to allow the development of a much needed residential area in London and Parliament will be relocated to a purpose-built property in Crawley.

What's that I hear you say? Never? We won't allow the destruction of our national Heritage for such short-term profit making gains. Not on your watch! And I'd be with you, if any of the above were true. But it's not. I made it all up.

Hopefully I now have your attention. Our fair isle was once blessed not just with glorious man made structures of international note, but with millions of acres of ancient woodland. Humanity has nibbled away at the wildwood and by the time of the Domesday Book, only about 15% of the country was still wooded. Today, less than 2% of Britain's land area still hosts ancient woodland. But that at least must be safe right? Wrong.

Let's put all this into perspective. It took a little over 250 years to build the exquisite York Minster Cathedral. A wood is classed as ancient in the British Isles if it has existed continuously since 1600, ie it must be over 400 years old. Some of the oak trees that still live within the safety of their woodland sanctuary are well over 1,000 years old. Some yew trees may be over 5,000 years old.

But now it seems, according to some politicians and business leaders, that we can mitigate against the destruction of these unique, wildlife rich, complex ecosystems by planting new trees elsewhere. Want to build a motorway service station on the site of existing ancient woodland? No problem! Just buy a few thousand saplings and plant them on farmland a few miles away. Job done. Heck, let's plant twice as many new trees than we cut down. That will be even better for the environment right?

You may think I am making all this up too. I am not. A vigorous lobby in parliament today would have us believe that we can replace ancient woodland, rich marshland, heath and a host of other irreplaceable habitats, already pushed to the very margins of existence, by planting some trees elsewhere. Never mind the hundreds of years of complex relationships between living organisms that develop within these fragile landscapes. Never mind the impact on wildlife, on flooding, on the very air we breathe. Plant a few trees 20 miles away and it will all be okay. You couldn't make it up.

What's more, my friends at the Woodland Trust tell me that offsetting is just one of many threats to our precious ancient woodland. The Trust records ancient woods under threat from development and has a database currently numbering more than 400 that are threatened right now. A loophole in the planning system, lack of long term thinking by government, and careless disregard for ancient woodland by developers all pose on-going threats that need to be addressed. Sadly, the battle to protect woods is being fought across the world too.

But we can all help to make a real difference - the Trust believes there are eight simple steps the government can take that will turn this situation around, securing much-needed changes that could save this rare and precious habitat. So please support its campaign to better protect all ancient woodland. Today, on International Day of Forests, you can give them a voice.

Of course, there are many other things you could do today too. There are thousands of beautiful woods throughout the UK that you can go and visit, such as one of my personal favourites; the New Forest. You could plant a tree, or order some free trees from the Woodland Trust to plant in your neighbourhood. Why not join a local volunteer group that looks after woods? As the clocks go forward soon, just take the time to remind yourself how special our ancient woods are.

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