Wales should follow Scotland’s lead in protecting the red squirrel’s habitat

Red squirrel on snow by Torange.biz (CC BY 4.0)

Craig Shuttleworth

The forest industry in Wales provides jobs and produces valuable products. It sustains local communities and supports woodland skills and crafts.

But forests and woodlands are also alive with a myriad of plants and animals. In fact, these habitats can offer a home to some of our rarest wildlife.

Many of the most endangered forest species are protected from harm by legislation. For example, the native red squirrel cannot be deliberately killed or injured and it is an offence to destroy the nests that it builds.

And since the 1980s it has been increasingly common for woodland management to balance the needs of woodland creatures.

Although there are some exceptions, most timber harvesting will need a licence from Government authorities.

In Scotland a change in the law allowed felling licences to be refused or granted with conditions specifically in order to enhance or conserve wildlife.

This pioneering legislative change has been a tenant of subsequent Scottish laws relating to forestry. It makes sense to be able to integrate biodiversity and commercial objectives.

There will be times, for example, when commercial forestry operations might threaten local extinction of a species and it makes sense for there to be a mechanism to prevent this.

In Wales, however, unlike Scotland, the 1967 Forestry Act does not allow wildlife conservation to be a justification for refusing licences.

It doesn’t matter how rare a species is, if it is present in woodland and an application for a felling licence is submitted, there are no legal grounds for refusal.

As forestry is devolved, the solution is simple. The Welsh Government should amend the 1967 Forestry Act or introduce a new forestry act which includes a suitable clause to protect wildlife.

Squirrel

Distribution of the red squirrel within Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland

Some Countryside Organisations have argued that this is not needed, they argue that animals like the red squirrel already have enough protection.

However, licensed forestry activities can take place where species like red squirrel are present, even if operations are wholly unsympathetic to them.

This is because there is a legal defence in the laws that protect those that destroy the red squirrel’s habitat – that it can be done as the ‘unintentional result of an otherwise lawful operation’.

If you are reading this and had thought that red squirrel habitat cannot be clear-felled you would be wrong.

And the legally protected nests they build? If one is observed then some companies would fell everything except that single tree containing the nest.

Problems in Wales are compounded because not only are there no licence conditions that can be put in place for red squirrel, there is currently no guidance available from Government to steer forestry companies on what would they should do.

Wildlife law is complicated. Mix it with the unhelpful anomaly of the 1967 Forestry Act, and it is a sure-fire recipe for undesirable outcomes.

Confidence

Harmonising Welsh felling laws with those in Scotland would help end ambiguity and give clarity.

Thus, a felling licence could contain specific conditions in relation to seasonal timing, method and pattern of felling to ensure negative impacts on wildlife were minimised.

It works in Scotland. There is no reason why Wales should not follow.

This change would help deliver the Wales Nature Recovery Action Plan 2015 which seeks to “reverse the decline in biodiversity, for its intrinsic value, and to ensure lasting benefits to society”.

It contains objectives and key actions required to meet national and European commitments to halt biodiversity loss.

These include “safeguard species and habitats of principal importance and improve their management” and “tackle key pressures on species and habitats”.

The current limitations of the 1967 Forestry Act in respect of forest wildlife sensitive to logging risks undermining these objectives.

Wildlife will gain and the forest industry itself will gain from change. Why? well, increasingly the public do not want to purchase timber or other forest products that have had a serious detrimental impact on wildlife. The recent palm oil protests demonstrate the desire for both ethical and sustainable forest management.

It is already commonplace for products made of UK sourced wood to have the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. The FSC signifies the wood is from sustainable sources managed with a high regard for wildlife conservation.

Hence, amendment of the 1967 Forestry Act would give greater consumer confidence in supply chains and reinforce the credibility of the global FSC forest certification scheme itself.

This is about integrated land management, delivering world-class wildlife conservation whilst supporting first-class forestry.

Scotland are waiting to pass us the baton. Let’s run with it and set an international standard.

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