Archived news (8)
News items published in the second half of 2017
The Times reported yesterday that a controlling interest in Forest Holidays (FH) has been bought by another private equity company, Phoenix Equity Partners. They will own just over 50% of FH with the rest held by LDC (part of Lloyd's Banking Group), FH's management and the Forestry Commission.
FH claimed that the private equity firm's investment would allow it to press ahead with developing at least 5 new sites over the coming five years. These will include two in Wales where they already have planning permission and one in the Scottish borders where an application has been submitted. Of course, all these sites are part of the Public Forest Estate and are likely to be developed on a 125-year lease.
In a memorably bullish statement FH's chief executive, referring to the company's planned expansion said: “The commission has one million hectares of forest in Great Britain so we’ve got plenty to keep us going for many years to come.”
What are the implications of this for Fineshade? It all depends on whether the Forestry Commission, in the face of so much opposition and despite strong counter arguments, still see Fineshade as a suitable site for this sort of holiday development. A scoping exercise was carried out during the summer of 2017 but we have been told that no decision has yet been taken about Fineshade's future. The threat to Fineshade Wood from an apparently revitalised Forest Holidays is greater than ever.
Forest Holidays sold in £110m deal
21 December 2017
Wild Horizons is a society for young people aged 18-30 embarking on a career in wildlife conservation or with a general love of the natural world. Based in Rutland, members have the opportunity to be part of a wildlife-focused social network, while gaining knowledge and experience. They have access to mentors with a variety of expertise through connections with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and Rutland Natural History Society.
On Saturday members of the group joined some of the Friends of Fineshade for a walk to some of the less visited areas of the wood. The aim was to "See both the Wood and the Trees", looking at features of the wood itself and also some of the individual trees and wildlife. We discussed the way in which this publicly-owned forest is managed by the Forestry Commission, who have the tricky task of balancing its use for recreation, with the need to produce timber and foster biodiversity. We looked at a range of types of woodland: 45 year-old Corsican Pine plantations contrasting with true ancient woodland, old coppice coups, mature oak plantations, naturally regenerating areas, glades and managed rides. We talked about dormice and kites, grasses and deer. Lots of fungi were seen and the picture on the left shows the group enjoying the way some puffball fungi could be encouraged to puff out clouds of brown spores.
The latest expert naturalist to visit Fineshade was Steve Lane from Norfolk. Steve's particular expertise is identifying beetles and last week he showed us how, even during the winter, it's possible to find an enormous range and number of insects and other invertebrates. The picture shows Steve about to cut the top off a tussock. He then up-ended it over the sieve and knocked scores of tiny creatures out. Many could be identified there and then, while others were taken away to study under a microscope. There were ground beetles, rove beetles, springtails, millipedes, tiny snails, harvestmen, weevils and even a glow-worm larva. Many of the species have only Latin names and an enormous list was recorded during the day. All the records will be sent to the Northants Biological Records Centre and, of course, to the Forestry Commission's ecologists.
One of the joys of recording in Fineshade for naturalists like Steve is that the wood is very under-recorded, so you never know quite what will turn up. We welcome as much expert help as possible in our quest to uncover the full richness of biodiversity that is undoubtedly here.
Updated 13 December
Steve's list included 61 species of beetles. Of these four are Nationally Scarce, one may be the the first Northants record and one Steve himself had never seen before. There were also 8 spider species and 2 harvestmen. One of the latter is also Nationally Scarce and we found at three Fineshade locations. A total of 88 species for the day, almost all of which had not been recorded in Fineshade before.
Wild Horizons visit Fineshade
15 October 2017
Another expert naturalist visits
26 November 2017
Back in April the latest application by Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission to build a holiday village in Delamere Forest was unanimously rejected by the local council. (Read about it here.) Almost exactly six months on, the company and FC say they are going to appeal against that decision. (Details in the Chester Chronicle here). A previous application had been ruled out by the then Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, on grounds that it was inappropriate development within the green belt.
Just as at Fineshade, there has been considerable local opposition to the plan. Local campaigner Nigel Gilding said "we should question the ethics of both Forest Holidays and certainly the Forestry Commission in their refusal to listen and abide by various democratic processes, including a four day public inquiry into the matter".
We wonder whether the decision to appeal at Delamere came about as part of the portfolio analysis of potential Forest Holidays sites being carried out this summer. (Details 16th May below) Or perhaps it is more to do with trying to impress potential bidders for Forest Holidays. (See 21 September ) Whatever the reasoning it is clear that once again the Forestry Commission's reputation is being tarnished by its association with Forest Holidays.
Forest Holidays launch an appeal at Delamere
4 October 2017
If you've walked in Westhay Wood, the southern part of Fineshade during the past week you'll have certainly noticed that the verges of the main tracks have had their yearly trim. All the grassy rides have had their central section cut too. Early autumn, when most of the wild flowers are over, is certainly the best time to carry out this mowing. This is all part of the Forestry Commission's plan to manage the rides in this part of the wood for the benefit of wildlife.
In the winter of 2015-16 most of the rides in Westhay were widened. We wrote about this here (Three cheers for the Commission) and here (Westhay - too much, too fast). We had strong reservations about the method used, but "the principle of widening the rides was a very good one and will, no doubt, be to the long-term benefit of Fineshade’s wildlife." These widened rides are now to be re-cut on a four-year cycle, so later this year about a quarter of the rides will have their entire width cut once again.
You can see the Forestry Commission's video explaining their ride-management techniques here. And on the ground, in Fineshade, we can see these techniques being carried out and a more varied woodland landscape gradually taking shape.
Mowing the verges and rides
1 October 2017
Forest Holidays (FH) has been put up for sale by its private equity owners. The company is largely owned by LDC, the private equity arm of the Lloyds Banking Group which acquired its stake in 2012. The Forestry Commission (FC) still retains a minority share (20%) in the company but, in the 2012 agreement there is a "drag and tag" clause which means that the FC would have to sell to the same bidders if LDC tell them to. If that happens FC would lose its place on the board of Forest Holidays and would have no influence at all over the management of the leased land - the Public Forest Estate.
So who might be interested in acquiring Forest Holidays, which now operates nine sites on the Public Forest Estate? Well it seems that Center Parcs may be interested, along with other private equity firms. (There are various news reports of the sale e.g. http://www.newsr.in/n/Business/75efe1pzy/Center-Parcs-vies-with-private-equity-firms-in.htm). Readers with very long memories may recall that, 25 or more years ago, Center Parcs were looking seriously at the possibility of acquiring Westhay Wood (the southern part of Fineshade) for one of their holiday camp locations.
What might be the implications for Fineshade of the sale of Forest Holidays? Will the new owners be even keener to exploit woodland areas with rich biodiversity such as Fineshade? It seems unlikely that they will be content to make money from the existing portfolio of nine sites, so small wonder that the Forestry Commission have been carrying out a national scoping exercise to create a new list of suitable sites for development. Perhaps FC have realised that there really are at least 15 reasons to take Fineshade off that list? It surely won't add to the value of the FH shares if buyers see that FC are including such an unsuitable site as Fineshade to the portfolio of potential sites. And, since FC must be keen to enhance the value of their own share-holding, you'd expect that Fineshade will no longer feature on that list. All may be revealed sooner or later - hopefully sooner, so that Fineshade Wood and its stakeholders can move out from under the dark threat of holiday development and into a brighter future.
For sale - Forest Holidays
21 September 2017
The Forestry Commission is currently advertising an interesting business opportunity based at Fineshade - they are looking for "a learning partner to deliver curriculum-linked activities". More details are here on the FC website
This certainly exemplifies the changed economic climate in which the Commission is now forced to operate. In former years, it was specialist FC staff who were responsible for providing educational activities and support here, and the wooden camping shelters and the woodland itself were part of the freely available facilities for groups to use. Austerity-driven staff cuts have changed all that, so FC is now proposing to contract-out these activities and facilities. They will charge businesses for operating in this way on the public forest estate, so that there will be an income to the FC and, no-doubt, a profit for the business. And, of course, it is those experiencing the education, the consumers themselves, who will inevitably end up paying more. Or perhaps a not-for-profit organisation will come forward and seek a deal with the Commission?
Would this result in more and higher quality education? We certainly agree with FC that "Fineshade Wood offers a fantastic learning opportunity for people of all ages and abilities, combining hands-on education with ideas for active minds". But, and there is a caveat, there is still the threat that Fineshade may become a holiday camp for Forest Holidays. Prospective learning partners will, no doubt, expect clarity from FC about this - it is high time top FC managers removed this threat to Fineshade once and for all.
Education and Bushcraft
Wednesday 30th August
Tom Pursglove, MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, has always been keen to protect Fineshade Wood from inappropriate development by Forest Holidays. He wrote recently:
"Fineshade was incorrectly designated in the first place as being suitable for commercial development. The list of sites is being reviewed again this summer, meaning that the threat of development could be lifted once and for all, which would be fantastic news for Fineshade and our local area - something I wholeheartedly support."
This week Tom wrote to Ian Gambles, the Director of Forestry Commission England asking him to review our concerns and seeking a meeting to ensure that FC do indeed remove Fineshade from their list of sites for future commercial development. We very much look forward to seeing Mr Gambles' reply and are most grateful to Tom for his continuing support.
Intervention by our MP
18 August 2017
A year ago the Rutland Natural History Society (RNHS) visit was cancelled because of the extreme heat. During this morning's visit there was very little sunshine so butterflies and crickets were not out in big numbers but, even so, the delightful Silver-washed Fritillaries were seen and a large colony of Roesel's Bush Crickets located by ace orthopterist, Phil Rudkin.
The group walked away from the main tracks in the open-access areas to the north of Fineshade Wood appreciating the different types of woodland habitat: true Ancient Woodland, plantation on Ancient Woodland, managed glades and regenerating former conifer plantation. The Gullets, with their swallow holes provoked great interest, but it was the open glades that provided most wildlife interest.
Members of RNHS had played an important part in opposing the Forest Holidays application, so they were pleased to see the impressive habitat still flourishing in Dumb Bob Spinney which would have been changed into a car park, children's playground, shop and reception area if the application had been approved.
Rutland Naturalists at Fineshade
Saturday 5th August
Butterfly Conservation at Fineshade
Sunday 30th July
Today the local branch of Butterfly Conservation (BC) met at Top Lodge for a field trip led by Douglas Goddard, together with county recorder David James. (Details here)
This was a great opportunity to learn more about butterflies and to identify more of them. On last year's walk, 18 species were seen but this year there were 20. This included 2 Small Skipper, 12 Large Skipper, 1 Brimstone, 1 Large White, 3 Small White, at least 2 Purple Hairstreaks, 1 White-letter Hairstreak, 1 Brown Argus, 2 Common Blue, 5 Red Admiral, 1 Painted Lady, 2 Peacock, 2 Comma, , 4 Speckled Wood, 1 Marbled White, 7 Gatekeeper, 5 Meadow Brown, 5 Ringlet and 1 Small Heath. But the definite highlight was provided by 23 Silver-washed Fritillaries. David was even able to find some eggs of the fritillaries on the trunk of an ash tree.
A very small percentage of female Silver-washed Fritillaries emerge as a different form with olive-brown wings. Referred to as valezina this form is beginning to be seen in the south of Northants but never in Fineshade - until today when a specimen of this unusual form caused great delight.
Another exciting find was the first record of a Spotted Flycatcher in Fineshade this year. This is one of the priority species for the Back from the Brink Project and the newly appointed project officer, Susannah O'Riodan was there to see it too. So all-in-all a very successful morning!
It's hard to find words to describe the feelings of dismay when news reached us of the new fire started by someone inside the trunk of one of Fineshade's oldest trees. We've described the magnificent beech before here, and here. It stands on the King's Cliffe side of the wood and has occupied a special place in the memories of people in that village for hundreds of years.
Recently someone deliberately lighted a fire in the trunk of the tree, charring and enlarging the space that was there before. Many people in 'Cliffe have expressed their outrage at this act of mindless vandalism (see the Kings Cliffe Community Facebook page) and there are various suggestions as to how the tree can be made secure to save it from further damage. For the moment the Forest Commission have installed motion sensitive cameras with the aim of deterring and detecting any further criminal acts.
Desecration of "Cathedral Tree"
Tuesday 17th July