The Protection of Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees from Development

Trenant Wood, Cornwall

Natural England and the Forestry Commission first produced a statement of Standing Advice” for veteran trees and ancient woodlands” back in 2014.  Standing advice is a ‘material’ planning consideration, meaning that planning authorities must take the advice into account when making decisions on relevant planning applications.  Since the advice was first issued there have been no less than 7 updates or changes to the advice given, so make sure you are up to date!

Protection measures extend to veteran or ancient trees, ancient wood pasture and historic parkland which is protected as a heritage asset. This could include old orchards or other heritage features.  Forestry plantations which are growing on ancient woodland sites are also counted as ancient woodlands for planning purposes.

Compensation for the loss of ancient woodland is not possible, and would take hundreds of years, which is why their protection is so extensive, and losses, such as likely from the new HS2 high speed rail link so controversial.  Where losses cannot be avoided, mitigation measures should be extensive and include the translocation of top soil and vegetation from the area of woodland which is being removed to the new woodland site. Continuity and linkages are also important: a new woodland planted adjacent to an ancient woodland will develop quicker and better than one planted on its own, with species spreading from the adjacent ancient wood.

Previous Standing Advice has suggested that a 50 metres buffer zone of semi-natural vegetation be left between developments and any ancient woodland or trees. The wording of this has now been changed to “an appropriate distance” and no less than 15 metres. Protection around individual veteran trees is set at a distance of 15 times the stem diameter of the tree or 5 metres beyond the crown spread. This represents quite a constraint for developers.

A veteran oak tree

Adverse impacts to ancient woodlands can result from, noise, light, drainage changes, increased visitor pressure, increased pet population and air quality changes. All of these impacts can result from developments which may be some distance from the ancient woodland or veteran trees, so it is not possible to just draw a line around an ancient woodland and rely on that for protection; active measures are also likely to be needed.

Many developers are surprised how close ancient woodlands or veteran trees can be to existing urban areas. As an example, the plan below shows areas of ancient woodland adjoining the town of Looe in Cornwall, close to a development site where we have been working. This is typical of all the small harbours along the south coast.

Efford Local Nature Reserve, Plymouth

Also, while planning regulations focus on protection, it is worth remembering that active management can also be beneficial for both the woodland and nearby residents.  The best woodlands have a diverse age structure, with open glades, young trees and all ages through to veteran trees (great for insects and bats) and even standing dead wood (woodpeckers anyone?).  A diverse woodland like that is also attractive for local residents to visit and helps local authorities develop their public open spaces network.  So, while an ancient woodland is a constraint it can also be an asset, enhancing the value of adjacent developments.  Plymouth has a particularly good network of woodland and local nature reserves throughout the city.

To get the best outcomes, the ecological and heritage value of these sites must be assessed at the earliest opportunity. Impact assessment must be thorough and address a wide range of issues including recreational impacts, air quality and noise as well as habitat disturbance. These should demonstrate that impact avoidance measures have been adopted first and foremost and that ecological mitigation has only been considered as a last resort. Meaningful ecological enhancement measures must also be provided which demonstrate that the scheme improves opportunities for local wildlife.

Simon Humphreys