Most people who choose to work or play in the woods do so because they love living and being in the outdoors and because they love being surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of nature. It is widely acknowledged in research and policy that access to nature is important for human and health and wellbeing. For many, managing woodlands for wildlife and/or environmental reasons is a primary objective. Woodlands are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, but many woodland specialist species are declining, and woodlands that are not managed are less biodiverse. It is the responsibility of anyone involved in woodland management to promote wildlife conservation, even if not a primary woodland management objective.
For information on tree species and identification see here.
There are several factors determining what species of plants and animals are suppprted by a woodland including: geographic location, type of woodland and age structure, soil type and ground conditions, management history, and re-introduction programmes. Plants and animal species in woodland will respond well to variations in age, structure, light, and browsing pressure created by actively managing woodlands. But it is always possible to tweak your activities to provide even better opportunities for particular groups of species, if you get to know the conditions of your woodland well, and find out more about what it could or should support.
In general terms, ancient semi-natural woodland is the most valuable for plants and animals; followed by other secondary deciduous woodland/mixed woodland; followed by coniferous woodland. However, coniferous plantations can be important for certain species including red squirrel, goshawk and nightjar (depending upon geographic location and age structure). The point is that a variety of woodland types are needed across the UK to cater for as many plants and animals as possible, and this is particularly important to help plants and animals adapt to new territories and locations in response to the climate crisis.
Unless there are any obvious signs that you have seen (e.g. you see badger using a sett on your trail cam), confirmed presence/absence of most animal species can only be reliably established by detailed survey from a suitably experienced/licensed Ecologist using established survey techniques. For most small woodland owners and managers on a tight budget, it is therefore appropriate to identify potential presence and appropriate management activities to encourage wildlife, using online sources of information.
For most people, The Woodland Wildlife Toolkit (developed by the Sylva Foundation) will be sufficient for this purpose, and is an excellent resource. Additional sources to inform your decision making include Local Biodiversity Action Plans (freely available; check out Local Planning Authority or local Wildlife Trust webpages) and local biodiversity records centre (though there will be a modest charge for the ecology data).
Most if not all woodlands will have one or more protected species populations/groups living within them; typically breeding birds, roosting bats, dormouse, great crested newt, badger, and reptiles.
In accordance with the UK Forestry Standard, it is good woodland management planning practice to ensure your management activities take the (potential) presence of such species into account (e.g. felling trees at a time of year that avoid the nesting bird season). This will also help you avoid/minimise causing an offence under wildlife law (which could result in a fine and/or imprisonment).
As stated above, in most cases an Ecologist would be needed to confirm absence of such species through survey. It is therefore prudent to assume these particular species/species groups are present until proven absent, based on a number of factors such as suitability of habitats present, using the online resources stated above.
In the vast majority if not all cases, the presence of such species/species groups should not be a significant constraint to owning and managing woodland, and a mitigation licence will not be needed from the statutory nature conservation orgnaisations, provided standard forestry practice and methods are followed. Indeed, the presence of such species is an asset to your woodland and your management activities could improve habitat for such species.
Statutory designations are areas protected by law, independent of whether you need planning consent or not.
A desktop search using Defra's Magic website will reveal if your woodland contains or is next to any statutory wildlife designations including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or National Nature Reserve (NNR). You will have to obtain permission from Natural England, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) or Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), as appropriate, for forestry activities affecting statutory wildlife designations. If you do not you will be risking a fine and/or imprisonment.
Other statutory designations that a desktop search using the Magic website will identify for you, and which may influence what you can do in your woodland include: Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), National Parks, World Heritage Sites, Scheduled Monuments, Conservation Areas, and Listed Buildings. Your Local Planning Authority can provide further information if required.
Environmental planning for woodland activities is a complex technical area. You are encouraged to find a suitably experienced and qualified woodland consultant, or planning consultant or solicitor at the earliest opportunity before purchasing a woodland or undertaking anything that materially alters the existing use or physical properties of the land.
There are several perpetuated ‘myths’ about planning consent and use of land, and what you can supposedly get away with. The key point to note is that even 'permitted development rights' do not give you the right to crack on regardless, because such rights are infact subject to certain conditions. Even certain conventional forestry activities that are permitted development (like installing a new or altering a forestry track or new forestry building), still need to go through a degree of formal scrutiny through the planning process ('prior notification'). Be aware that permitted development rights can be restricted or removed in certain sensitive areas by the Local Planning Authority. Even some projects which were permitted development have been challenging to see through, only finding positive resolution through planning appeal!
As a general rule, the more complex your usage of the site becomes, particularly the further removed it is from conventional forestry activities (e.g. is more than just felling and planting trees) the more likely it is you will need full planning permission. Gaining full planning permission to live on your woods is not impossible, but is the exception not the rule.
Many Local Planning Authority’s now have an interactive online mapping service which allows you to search for most planning policy areas and designations by postcode or address, and these services are free to use.
Also check for:
- Ancient Woodland (see the Magic website): in national planning policy there is a strong presumption against any development affecting Ancient Woodland, unless there are demonstrable exceptional reasons. Any negative effects to Ancient Woodland must readily mitigated and compensated for after first proving the negative effects cannot be avoided (e.g. by altering the location of development).
- Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs). Your Local Planning Authority will be able to tell you if your woodland is affected, and if so, you will need permission from them for tree works.
- Tree felling: Felling more than 5 cubic metres of wood per calendar quarter from each woodland requires a felling licence from the Forestry Commission (or equivalent authority in devolved nations).
- Forestry Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): access tracks, quarries, woodland creation and deforestation on a large-scale may need notification to the Forestry Commission (or equivalent authority in devolved nations) or consent from them. Further guidance is available on Government websites.
- Ordinary Watercourse Consent: from the Lead Local Flood Authority (typically your Local Planning Authority) for work in or adjacent to any watercourse that is not a 'main river' (in which case the jurisdiction for consent is with the Environment Agency or equivalent authority in the devolved nations).
Woodland Wildlife Toolkit - Sylva Foundation
Land Management Advice – RSPB
www.wildlifetrusts.org – for your nearest Wildlife Trust
SSSIs and other designated areas – Joint Nature Conservation Committee
SSSIs and other designations – Natural England
SSSIs – Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Tree Preservation Orders (downloadable details) – Department for Communities and Local Government
Safeguarding protected species – Forestry Commission
Publications on woodland biodiversity and ecology – Forest Research
Tree Preservation Orders – Woodland Trust