The New Forest Association has called for the Forestry Commission to be replaced in the New Forest and for the Forest's conifer plantations to be phased out in favour of traditional broadleaved forest.
The 144-year-old Association, which aims to champion, protect and conserve the unique heritage and ecology of the New Forest, has made the radical suggestions in its written submission to the Independent Panel on Forestry this month (July 2011).
Over the last 200 years, says the NFA, large conifer plantations used for intensive commercial forestry have reduced the beauty and biodiversity of much of the New Forest, rendering it "sterile". In order to repair this damage, the historic broadleaved woodlands of the Forest should be allowed to develop naturally, providing sustainable products for the local economy.
The NFA also suggests retaining state ownership of the New Forest under new landscape managers, bound by the requirement to protect its unique status.
"Management of the New Forest by the Forestry Commission is merely an accident of history," says the submission. "The Forest owes its unique character and survival to the commoners grazing their stock which has brought about the open heaths, lawns, pasture woodlands and wetlands we see today. The conflicts with timber growers are legion and go back centuries. There is a case for easing the burden on the Forestry Commission by removing them from the area totally."
The NFA argues that the New Forest is of exceptional importance for biodiversity and should be designated as one of the proposed Ecological Restoration Zones outlined in the Lawton report last year. This report, commissioned by DEFRA, concluded that England's wildlife sites were too small and too isolated, leading to a decline in traditional species which would only get worse through the effects of climate change.
With its 20 sites of Special Scientific Interest, six Natura 2000 sites, two Ramsar Convention sites, many rare species and unusual mix of habitats and wildlife, the New Forest National Park area should be considered as a special case for conservation and should be protected from further mismanagement or decline, says the NFA.
The NFA also calls for the whole of the Crown Estate land to be protected, including the back up land and cottages which are so vital to commoning, and for the expertise of local Forestry Commission specialists to be retained in any new structure. The New Forest Acts of 1877 to 1970, which give the Verderers responsibility for the management of the Open Forest and the commoners' grazing system, should also be retained, it says.
Peter Roberts, NFA Chairman, said that continuing management of the New Forest for softwoods is inappropriate, given the outstanding value of the area both for wildlife and for people.
"The New Forest has enormous potential for increasing its biodiversity and landscape beauty, as well as its value for recreation," he said. "At present, many of its habitats are in poor condition as a result of mismanagement in previous decades. There is an urgent need for habitat restoration, to address this problem.
"Although the Forestry Commission's management of the Open Forest heathland has been carried out well in recent years, restoration is held back by the subsidised forestry culture and by the large swathes of conifer planting, which fragment internationally rare habitats, introduce diseases and damage the archaeology of the New Forest.
"No further establishment of non-native trees should occur in the New Forest and non-native plantations should be returned to native woodlands. There are enough soft woods to supply the local timber industry for the next fifty or sixty years already, without the need for further plantings. A return to more broad-leaved plantations would increase the beauty of the New Forest, would help species to diversify and would also help local businesses," he said.
For the full text (pdf) of the response sent by the NFA to the Independent Panel on Forestry click here.