The government has published its updated policy paper on ancient and native woodland (ANW) and ancient and veteran trees (AVTs) in England. Keepers of Time is an update on the 2005 paper and much has changed since then.

The paper is unequivocal about the value of ANW and AVTs. They are habitats for some of our most threatened species; are important to our mental and physical wellbeing; and provide numerous important ecosystem services, such as storing carbon, and regulating water and soil.

“This Government has made significant commitments to establish new trees and woodland across the country, but it is no less vital to preserve what we have now […] Ancient trees and woodlands are a part of our natural heritage and they are simply irreplaceable. They provide unique ecological conditions and support whole ecosystems that cannot be found anywhere else.”

Lord Goldsmith
Minister of State (Minister for Pacific and the Environment)

ANW and AVTs are also an “irreplaceable habitat” – they cannot be destroyed and simply “offset” elsewhere. For example, one ancient oak has more biodiversity than a thousand 100-year-old oaks. Ancient woodland forms only 28% of the extent of English woodland, but stores 38% of all carbon stored in living trees – not to mention the vast carbon stocks further stored in deadwood and soils. However, over 70% of English ancient woodlands are less than five hectares (0.05 square km) in size. This puts them at far greater risk of threats and deterioration than larger areas of woodland.

We know there are at least 111,000 ancient and veteran trees in England – each one a natural wonder in and of itself, with social, ecological and cultural value. The Woodland Trust keeps an inventory of AVTs and has produced an interactive map that you can use to find AVTs near you to visit and marvel at. You can also add trees to the inventory to contribute to its completeness and ensure that AVTs are protected and cared for, for generations to come. Recent research suggests that there could be as many as two million AVTs throughout England – a huge number more than we currently know about, and each one immeasurably valuable for wildlife and cultural significance.

A 'Friend of Bluebell Woods' balsam bashing with the Nature Recovery Ranger in Fazakerley Woodland, Liverpool
A ‘Friend of Bluebell Woods’ balsam bashing with the Nature Recovery Ranger in Fazakerley Woodland, Liverpool. Photo: Fiona Megarrell / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Keepers of Time details a huge number of threats facing ANW and AVTs, providing information about:

The main strategic objective of the policy paper is to protect ANW and ANTs from these threats. Its policy vision states that by 2050 all ANW and ANTs will be appropriately protected, sustainably managed and provide and wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits to society.

In this paper, the government also states that increasing the area of native woodland is a policy priority. This includes an emphasis on habitat connectivity and connecting patches of woodland, to form part of the Nature Recovery Network combatting the impact of habitat fragmentation. It also aims to:

Finally, supporting the economy and promoting health and wellbeing are also priorities. The reference to mental health and wellbeing is particularly welcome in light of Forest Research’s recent report on the huge value of the mental health benefits of woodlands.

However, woodlands cannot provide benefits if access is an issue, and the Nature for Everyone campaign to increase access to green spaces remains as important when it comes to ancient woodland as with any other form of green space. In Keepers of Time, the government commits to producing a Woodland Access Implementation Plan; watch this space for our comment on this when it is published.

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