A forestry plan on farmland near Stourhead is proving contentious with the local community – Fanny Charles heard from both sides
It sounds like a riddle or an eco-puzzle – and in some ways that’s what it is. But the right tree/wrong tree question is proving very contentious at Stourton, where Nick Hoare, owner of the Stourhead (Western) Estate, is planting new woodland on Bonham Plain.
The proposal is to plant 190,000 trees – both conifer and broadleaf, but the majority will be conifer, as softwood timber is what the country needs, says Nick Hoare. ‘We will start to thin in 15 to 20 years time. The woodland will be managed by Continuous Cover Forestry. It will never be clear-felled, but continually thinned and allowed to regenerate naturally. Once in full production (in 60 years), Bonham Plain Wood will grow up to 1,000 tonnes of timber a year.’
The project has been strongly criticised by the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs National Landscape (formerly the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, aka AONB) as well as local residents, including Francesca Kippen and her husband Erik Ruane, who live in the historic Bonham Manor, adjoining the site.
But it is supported and funded by the Forestry Commission, and conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the National Trust, which owns the Stourhead Estate, with its Palladian mansion and world-famous gardens, have not objected. Wiltshire Climate Alliance is among organisations actively supporting the scheme.
The Bonham Action Group has drawn up a Save Bonham Farmland petition, which to date has more than 530 signatures. Chaired by Councillor Bridget Wayman of West Knoyle, Wiltshire Council’s representative on the Cranborne Chase NL’s board. The petition, addressed to Steve Barclay, the current Secretary of State for the Environment, reads (in part):
‘Halt plans to smother 200 acres of thriving productive farm land with imported conifer trees for private lumbering, on the edge of Stourhead. The Forestry Commission has ignored objections, not complied with its own consent rules, and ridden roughshod over any opposition from statutory bodies such as the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Forestry Commission needs to be accountable for:
- Destroying prime food producing land
- Scarring the AONB landscape
- Breaking their own rules
- Failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment
- Failing to conduct a Landscape Visual Impact Assessment
- Falsely claiming the land to be “unfavourable”
- Awarding nearly £1m in taxpayer funded grant-aid on false premise
‘Instead of benefitting the environment, this forest will benefit a timber company. There is a place and a way to grow trees that do benefit the environment. For example, The Great Wood, Wiltshire, is replacing monoculture, coniferous trees with mixed, native, broadleaves for a biodiverse woodland that optimises carbon capture.
‘We must protect our prime farmland for continued food growth. Bonham farmland is classified as grade 2, Best and Most Versatile land, where the tenant farmer was producing 10t of grain per hectare.
‘We must protect the distinct feature of the open, greensand terrace, sweeping westward from White Sheet Hill, to be conserved for its unique landscape across plains of rich, food producing fields as far as the eye can see.
‘We need to protect against the Forestry Commission marking their own homework, as judge and jury, to meet political tree targets at any cost. The consent process needs to be policed to ensure the Forestry Commission adhere to their own slogan to plant “The Right tree, Right Place, Right Reason.”
‘We call on the government to:
- Prioritise prime farmland for food production – no exceptions
- Conserve the South West’s Cranborne Chase AONB
- Make the Forestry Commission accountable for their dereliction of statutory duties.’
Cllr Wayman says the whole process was conducted with disregard for local opinions and the impact on the community. The Bonham Action Group wants the Forestry Commission to review its approval and to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment, analysing the implications for the environment to provide the basis for an acceptable scheme to be put forward.
In direct contrast to their slogan of Right Tree, Right Place, Cllr Wayman says, ‘the Forestry Commission’s behaviour brings us the opposite. This is the wrong tree, wrong place and there has been a failure of process throughout. The Forestry Commission must press the pause button, conduct a proper environmental assessment and consult with the local community so that a suitably considered scheme, which benefits both the environment (in an area which is deemed ‘sensitive’ under EIA regulations) and the community, can be put forward.’
Group members have also questioned a Forestry Commission (government) grant which they claim is around £900,000 for the scheme. Nick Hoare says this figure is wrong. The grant, he says, is £600,000 ‘and it’s for the whole thing, over 15 years, including maintenance.’
Why no EIA?
The lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment, the loss of productive farmland and the damage to an area defined as Greensand Terrace are the key concerns of Cranborne Chase NL, voiced by both the National Landscape’s principal landscape and planning officer Richard Burden and Wiltshire Council representative Bridget Wayman.
Richard Burden says: ‘Back in 2019, I advised the Forestry Commission that at least a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment would be needed, and the (then) AONB sustained an objection right through to the Forestry Commissioners considering the proposal (and grant aid).’
The NL’s statement warns: ‘The planting will permanently change its character and views to and from the area for decades to come. Neither an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) nor a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) were carried out, as both were deemed unnecessary by the Forestry Commission; contrary to the Forestry Commission’s own UK Forestry Standard.’
The NL says that this is also in direct breach of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It points out that Bonham Plain is Grade 2 agricultural land (described as the best and most versatile land) – not Grade 3 as was originally suggested and subsequently corrected.
The National Landscape statement continues: ‘Trees are a vital part of some of the Cranborne Chase landscape, contributing to its character and an essential part of its biodiversity. However, the wrong trees in the wrong place can have a lasting and damaging impact on the character of this nationally significant landscape and the public’s appreciation and enjoyment of it.’
The Forestry Commission view
A spokesperson for the Forestry Commission sent the BV Magazine the following statement:
‘Wiltshire is benefiting from a significant increase in new woodland and trees, which will help bring the local community together and increase access to nature to improve wellbeing, increase local biodiversity and help meet “national net zero by 2050” ambitions.’
As background information, the spokesman continued: ‘The Forestry Commission does not comment on individual applications for woodland creation. When assessing a woodland creation project, the Forestry Commission is committed to following forestry Environmental Impact Assessment regulations to determine whether a proposal would have a significant effect on the environment.’
In a 2020 blog on the gov.uk website, Mark Broadmeadow, climate change adviser at the Forestry Commission, sets out the framework of the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS), which the Commission is responsible for implementing in England. The government has made a commitment to plant up to 30,000 hectares of trees per year, across the UK, by 2025.
Under the heading, ‘Right tree, right place, right reason’, the blog gives what is described as a ‘brief insight’ into sustainable forestry, concluding that the UKFS ‘will ensure that the standards for the planning, design and sustainable management of forests and woodlands in the UK use an approach based on internationally recognised science and best practice, with the right tree, planted in the right place and for the right reasons.’
An estate commitment
When Nick Hoare, who is also a member of Stourton with Gasper Parish Council, took over the running of the Stourhead (Western) Estate in 2001, he says that maintaining and strengthening biodiversity was a key objective. Creating woodlands and growing timber had been an important feature of the Hoare family’s running of the Stourhead estate since the family bought it in 1717: ‘I am carrying on that process,’ he says.
A former jet engine designer for Rolls Royce, Nick is related to the family which originally created the Stourhead landscape gardens in the 18th century. He is also distantly related to the part of the family which runs the private bank C Hoare & Co, founded in 1672 by Sir Richard Hoare. Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare and his wife Alda, whose only son died in the First World War, gave 3,000 acres of Stourhead Estate – comprising Stourhead House and Garden and four working farms – to the National Trust in 1946. Nick’s side of the family retained what is known as the Stourhead (Western) Estate.
With his wife, Sara, Nick opened Stourhead Farm Shop in 2005, in partnership with Steve and Louise Harris. In 2015-16 they built four affordable homes for rent in Gasper. Cottages on the estate are only let to full-time local residents (no weekenders). Nick and Sara encourage walkers to enjoy the woods, and clubs and schools use the woods for activities including cycling, running and orienteering. Children from Whitesheet Primary School, along with many local volunteers, have been planting tiny saplings as part of the Bonham Plain project.
The plans for the new forest were set out in posters with photographs and statistics beside one of the runways on the wartime Zeals airfield, where they would be seen by the many walkers. (See photographs of some of the posters). The claimed environmental benefits include the woodland absorbing at least 28,000 tonnes of CO2 over the next 30 years. However, says Nick, ‘this may sound a lot, but at our current rate this is the amount of CO2 that just 200 people will emit over that 30 years.’
While tree planting does help, it is only a small part of solving the climate crisis then: ‘Elsewhere on the estate we have improved house insulation, installed air and ground source heating, increased biomass heating and added solar PV panels to houses and farm buildings.’ The forestry scheme is also described on the estate’s website, stourhead.com
While I was investigating the plans for Bonham Plain forest and sounding out local opinion, one word kept coming up – biodiversity. People who regularly walk in the woods at Gasper, Penselwood, around Alfred’s Tower and along Pen Ridge overlooking Somerset towards Glastonbury Tor, value the wide range of wildlife, plants and trees, and the sounds of a peaceful woodland that is only occasionally interrupted by the roaring buzz of a chainsaw.
One ecology-minded local asked specifically about boxes for owls, bats and dormice, whether there would be public footpaths through the new woodland, and whether the existing wildlife-rich scrub (for example, along the old runways) would be retained.
The answers were that the scrubby, straggling, overgrown hedges will remain, and that there are already wildlife boxes as well as raptor posts (where the presence of goshawks has been identified). Existing paths will remain, there will be new paths in the new woods, and a circular route will be created, connecting the Temple of Apollo in Stourhead gardens to the bluebell woods.
The diversity of wildlife in the forests may come as a surprise, even to those who regularly walk on the many paths: it includes 13 of the resident UK bat species, goshawks and other raptors, 128 plant species, 248 moths and 26 birds. The rare birds recorded include the Marsh Tit, as well as the goshawks (Some of these figures come from a 2022 survey by Butterfly Conservation).
Countering objectors’ claims that the new woodland will be a monoculture, Nick explains that there will be 13 species of broadleaf – beech, sycamore, birch and alder (‘this is not oak country,’ he says), as well as shrubs and bushy trees such as crab apple. There will be 14 species of conifer, including Douglas fir, spruce, Western cedar – and some coastal redwoods, famous as the giants of the American Pacific forests. (See photo of a recently planted ‘baby redwood’.)
It will take many years for Bonham Plain to reach the level of diversity of the older woodlands, but in the early years it will be a good habitat for voles, hence a great hunting ground for hawks and owls, says Nick. Meanwhile, on a wetland area of the estate, there are signs of beavers at work, evidence of the way these beneficial mammals are gradually colonising rural waterways.
What is continuous cover?
The Stourhead (Western) Estate woodland is managed by David Pengelly of Canopy Land Use, experts in continuous cover management. As described by the Continuous Cover Forestry Group, this system ‘is an approach to forest management which aims to develop structurally, visually and biologically diverse forests, in which sustainable production of good quality timber is achieved along with the provision of a wide range of ecosystem services.’
There is no large-scale felling – the kind of clear-felling that scars some hillsides in the Scottish Highlands. Instead, trees are replaced in small groups as needed, with the aim over the years that natural regeneration fills in the gaps and boosts the biodiversity of the forest, while continuing to provide good-sized commercial timber.
The UK currently imports 70 per cent of the timber the country needs. Continuous cover woodland helps to address this imbalance, as well as providing environmental benefits. ‘It provides larger logs, which are needed for furniture and building, with knock-on benefits for carbon capture,’ says Nick. ‘It creates a much more complicated habitat which benefits wildlife, and the further you go with continuous cover the better it is for wildlife.’
Walkers in the Stourhead/Gasper woods may spot the occasional larger area of felling – these are usually where larch trees, infected by the Ramorum disease (which also affects sweet chestnuts), have been cut down.