Conservation group hits out over forest gradings

A CONSERVATION group that champions an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Suffolk coast has questioned the government's grading of forests in moves that could see public-owned woodland sold off.

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Unit promotes the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) that stretches from Kessingland to Shotley, south of Ipswich, encompassing the Sandlings Forests of Dunwich, Rendlesham and Tunstall.

The unit is currently looking at the details of the government's consultation on Forestry Commission-owned land, published at the end of last month, which put a question mark over the future of the UK's forests.

Tunstall Forest has been designated as 'heritage' – meaning it is earmarked for charity ownership – but Dunwich and Rendlesham forests have been classified as 'small commercial', which could see land sold to a commercial operator or handed over to a community group.

The government is looking for potential new owners for the sites, but heritage forests will be subject to greater protection under trust or charity management.

Unit manager Nick Collinson said he could not understand the reasoning behind Dunwich and Rendlesham's and classifications.

'There's an awful long way to go on the consultation and we are waiting to see how the various players involved react before we give our response,' he said. 'But my initial, principal concern is why Rendlesham and Dunwich are 'small commercial' forests – I can't see how that matches their definitions.

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'Given they are in a nationally protected land-scape and considering the biodiversity and the public involvement and access, we would question why they are not 'heritage' forests as well.'

Mr Collinson said the unit was working with the Forestry Commission on conservation and biodiversity projects at the three woodlands and stressed the need for such work to continue.

'The fundamental thing is that ownership of forests must be outward-looking – and the Forestry Commission does that very well. We would be very happy for them to carry on.'

He added: 'The money that would be raised by selling off land is a pittance compared to the public benefit – and the public benefit at these three forests is huge. We don't want to see that diminished.'

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Unit champions an AONB that stretches over more than 150sq miles and works with 26 partner agencies, including the Forestry Commission, on conservation projects in forests, heathland and estuaries.

The forestry consultation lasts until April. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that public access rights would be protected but it was time for the Government to 'step back' from timber production and forest management.

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