This November is the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, which restored the rights of free men to access and use the Royal Forests.
Nowadays the Charter of the Forest may seem fairly irrelevant to most people. Dealing with practices such as ‘pannage’ (knocking acorns from oak trees for pigs) and ‘estover’ (collecting wood) it feels a world removed from modern life. The issues that the historic charter sought to address, however, are familiar.
The Charter of the Forest was intended to tackle an insidious trend, whereby the Plantagenet rulers (especially King John) increased the Royal Forests by declaring more and more land to be ‘afforested’ and therefore subject to draconian forest law.
The result was that more and more people in England found they were unable to access the natural benefits of the landscape that they previously took for granted.
Today we find ourselves facing a similar situation of needing to secure and extend the benefits of trees – albeit for different reasons. Some 800 years on the role of trees in the lives of people living in the UK has changed, but is just as important and more in need of protection than ever before.
Most of us may be unconcerned about having permission to gather acorns or wild honey, but want clean air, beautiful leafy streets, access to woods that help improve public health whilst enabling them to connect to nature, wood products and job opportunities producing and working with timber.
We understand more and more how much trees contribute to our mental health and to stronger landscapes that support the wildlife we love.
But far from responding to this, the political and economic landscape far too often has a destructive impact on the natural landscape, with the few remaining ancient woods grossly under-protected from housing and infrastructure development, and street trees being removed in their thousands from cities and towns amid budgetary pressures on management and loss of local tree officer expertise.
A new charter for today’s challenges
The people whose lives are improved by these trees and woods – all of us – are too often excluded from decision-making processes that are dominated by financial grounds alone and all too rarely reflect the ability of trees to help deliver upon some of the great policy challenges of our age for remarkably little cost.
This has been happening for years, but as the rate of loss becomes visible even to people whose lives have nothing to do with conservation, forestry or planning, the scent of revolution is in the air.
Across the country, people are starting to stand up against local and national policies that are causing the trees and woods that improve their lives to disappear from the landscape.
In a time when hard choices have to be made, things that are seen as low priority face the chop. If we want our trees and woods to avoid a very literal chop we need to ensure they are recognised as high priority for the people of the UK.
Recognising the crisis facing the UK’s trees and woods, more than 70 organisations representing diverse sectors and communities have come together to define a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People that addresses the issues of our time.
Even more importantly, about 200 local groups have joined the Tree Charter campaign to stand up for the trees and woods most important to them.
These ‘charter branches’ include Sheffield campaigners who are literally standing with healthy street trees to prevent them from being felled by contractors as part of council highway maintenance work; Southwark residents are objecting to the clear-felling of woods on burial grounds to allow re-use of plots; artists and theatre groups are seeking to challenge people to rediscover the magic of woods and trees; Forest School groups are seeking to ensure children don’t miss out on the formative experiences of freely exploring woodland; and landowners and community woodland groups are concerned by low planting rates and the need for more urgent action on tree disease.
This grassroots army is living proof of a growing concern about the future of the UK’s trees and woods, and a willingness to take action to safeguard it.
- Sign the Tree Charter and help shape a future in which people and trees stand stronger together: TreeCharter.uk/sign
Photo by Ewan-M