Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Forests sell-offs and the panic attack in the zoo canteen

This week's review tackles the enormous issue that is the forest sell-off, and asks who benefits from us keeping our forests? Everyone? Or just celebs and the car-driving middle classes? Plus there's stuff on wetlands, and more on citizen science surveys...

I must be one of a minority of people to have had a panic attack at Twycross Zoo. It was a few years ago. My wife nipped off to the loo, and I sat alone in the canteen then… BANG… Cold sweats, heart palpitations and a feeling of being overcome with worry and, well, impending doom.

Thankfully I’ve never had a panic attack since, partly because I took to writing my troubles down. So forgive me if I put into words some worries that I have about one of the big conservation stories of the last few years: the Government’s big forest sell-off.

It’s an enormous deal: The Sale of Our Crown Jewels, the loss of our places of legend, our heritage – and the public response has certainly had the government on the ropes. It seems like every day the government’s been weaving, bobbing and, twisting its stance after each day’s onslaught by campaigners and celebrities. (DEFRA keeps releasing a series of ‘MYTHS ABOUT THE FOREST SALE: DUBUNKED’ postings, that have a distinctly Orwellian ring to them).

So what’s my concern? Well, first of all let me say this: I AM SUPPORTING CAMPAIGNERS ON THIS ISSUE! In fact I urge you to go to the 38 Degrees website right this minute and encourage your local MP to think carefully about this issue before they vote tomorrow (2nd February). It takes three minutes, honestly – go do it now. I'll meet you back here.

Ok, for those that haven't been waylaid, I’ve been a bit concerned about the publicity that’s been surrounding this issue, and the celebrity forest endorsers that keep coming out of the woodwork (so to speak). They say things like: “Hands off our forests!” or “These forests are ours! We love them and we’ll stand by them!”

So where’s my beef? Well, I worry that this type of talk paints an alternative reality of our woodlands, and public access to them. Yes, some of the car parks are full on weekends, but how about the rest of the time? Does the man in the street really feel like those forests belong to him (or her)? Do most people really know where their nearest Forestry Commission site is, or are the people filling the carparks repeat visitors? Who do these forests really belong to? Celebs and (dare I mention…) the middle classes? Rightly or wrongly these questions keep popping into my head.

I’d like to see it mentioned somewhere that access to Forestry Commission sites has not been good enough at the present time, and I’d argue that they’re not accessible for everyone in this country – particularly those in urban areas. We need to do even more than just save them. We need to improve access to them. So I guess I’m sad to see so many of the campaigners sound like they’re fighting to keep things the same. It just seems like a missed opportunity somehow…

Also, it shouldn’t be forgotten that our forests are rarely free: the car park charge the Forestry Commission introduced a couple of years ago killed off that notion, and few people are realistically going to get public transport (buses) to such sites. And talking of public transport, the rising cost of bus-hire puts the use of such forests for field trips out of reach of all but the richest and nearest schools (certainly that’s the opinion of teachers I’ve spoken to).

I’m not blaming the Forestry Commission here – there’s no doubt that reaching communities is (was?) one of their aims, but we shouldn’t over-egg how near they were to meeting the challenge they were facing. The forests aren’t (or weren’t…) full enough, otherwise the Government’s proposal might never have got traction in the first place.

Even if the forests are ‘saved', we’ve got our work cut out for us. So let’s add this to the debate! Celebrities unite! We don't just want to keep our forests, we want them to be better, and for everyone!

(Ahhhhhh…. and relax. That’s it. Rant over. Thanks for letting me put this into writing (and reading this far no-less - wow). Ah, I feel better already. Look at me, safe to go back in the Twycross Zoo canteen once more).

So, what else is going on this week...?

Water way to learn about wetlands

Well, first of all tomorrow (2nd of February) is World Wetlands Day – a global celebration of the power of wetlands. You can find out more about the initiative on the RAMSAR site but for good educational resources you could go no better than visiting the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, who are committed to the conservation of wetlands. Lesson plans and other downloadable resources are available, and I’ve heard many people raving about their KS2 Great Pond Safari. Find out more here.

Incidentally, wildlife conservationists often try to quantify the positive impact that wildlife conservation has in terms of the economic benefits to society. This is particularly the case for wetlands, since so many of us depend on water for life, and livelihoods. There’s a nice summary of the power of wetlands here from today’s Guardian – remember it, it might make a great case study, if forests aren’t your thing.

Recording more species in your backyard!

With the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch over for another year don’t forget that other wildlife spotting initiatives are available, notably from OPAL, the Open Air Laboratories Network (coordinated by the Natural History Museum). If you’re up for surveying soil, air or water, your (or your group’s) observations can help scientists understand where wild things may (or may not) roam in this country. If I haven’t said it before, surveying is a superb activity for young people to get involved in, and OPAL packages these activities up perfectly.

Well, that’s about it for this week. I’m off to go and print this out and stick it into my Worry Diary, just like I promised my therapist I would.


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