Forest Holidays' secret data
Last updated November 2019 - see below
In 2015-16 ecological surveyors carried out a range of surveys in Fineshade Wood. These included surveys for Dormice, Reptiles, Birds and Bats. They were commissioned by Forest Holidays and carried out with Forestry Commission approval. But the results of those surveys are being kept secret, even from the Commission.
Anyone carrying out formal ecological surveys on the Public Forest Estate requires the permission of the Forestry Commission and is required to furnish the FC with the results of the survey – the FC needs to know what wildlife is present in the wood so that it can properly carry out its responsibility to manage the woodland on our behalf - this is part of their "Section 40 biodiversity duty". The same principle does not appear to hold for FC's "partner", Forest Holidays.
Ecological surveys in 2015-16
In 2015 following the defeat of their application for a large holiday development, Forest Holidays began to carry out new surveys of the wildlife in Fineshade Wood, with FC approval. We know there were definitely surveys for Dormice, Bats, Birds and Reptiles because we met and talked to the surveyors or saw the survey equipment in the wood. We heard that there were to be surveys for Badgers too.
We were very critical of some aspects of the surveys for Reptiles and Bats. The reptile surveys caused a furore when a FC contractor, mowing the rides, did not know that the FH contractor had laid out artificial reptile refugia. The FC apologised for the mistake saying that they were
“working with our partners at Forestry (sic) Holidays to ensure that the full details of the precise location and timings of any surveys are clear.”
We wrote at that time:
"This sorry state of affairs calls into question claims that FC/FH can work together to conserve wildlife - if they cannot carry out a simple survey properly how can they be expected to displace and mitigate for protected species as they propose to do if they build a holiday camp?"
By spring 2016 it appeared that the reptile and dormice surveys were complete as the monitoring equipment had gone from the wood. We did not know whether Bat and Badger surveys were yet complete but we met the bird surveyor again and were informed that the survey was continuing for a second year with dawn and dusk surveys along the boundary of the proposed development site.
A FOI request to the Forestry Commission
While drawing up our arguments to put to Natural England for the case for designation of the wood as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, we were aware that the surveys carried out by FH's contracted surveyors could contain helpful extra evidence to strengthen the case. Unfortunately, we were unable to find the results of last year’s surveys published anywhere on the FC website and we were drawing a blank with informal enquiries.
Therefore on 28 April one of the Friends of Fineshade sent a Freedom of Information request to the Forestry Commission under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. His request was for “copies of documents relating to the ecological surveys carried out by Forest Holidays’ (FH) consultants on FC-managed land at Fineshade Wood after February 2015.” He also requested to see copies of any requests made by FC for FH to supply those reports, if for any reason the FC were not in possession of the survey reports.
In a letter dated 16th May the Forestry Commission’s Area Land Agent responded. All FOI responses are very carefully and lengthily worded, but the crucial phrases in this response are:
“… and we do not hold any recorded information on the ecological surveys carried out for or by Forest Holidays…”
“… we do not hold any recorded information in respect to having made any request to Forest Holidays for any ecological survey information they might hold.”
The FOI rules mean that the information was not held by FC on the date of the request, namely 28 April 2016. Further requests in September and December 2016 drew the responses that "it remains the case that we do not hold any recorded information on the ecological surveys carried out for or by Forest Holidays".
The Forestry Commission:
does not hold information on the ecological surveys carried out for or by Forest Holidays,
has not asked for that ecological survey information.
It is part of their duty to do so.
Requests to Forest Holidays
It is clear that, if FH were to make another planning application in Fineshade Wood, all the data their surveyors collected would have to be published anyway. However, since Simon Hodgson, the CEO of the Forestry Commission, has indicated that such an application is not being progressed there can be little point in maintaining the secrecy of what they found. We have pointed out that the Forestry Commission’s ability to manage the wood intelligently is being compromised by their partner’s inaction, so we hoped a little encouragement to Forest Holiday’s head of planning Richard Palmer might move things along. It was he who attended Top Lodge for a “consultation” on 6th February 2014 and, at that stage he was very confident and keen to answer questions about Fineshade. That’s Richard on the left in the photo sitting next to the Forestry Commission’s Andy Medhurst.
However, since his appearance at the consultation Richard has become much more difficult to contact. It seems that withholding information is something of an art form at FH. We've tried numerous phone calls to FH published phone number (03330-110495) and asked to speak to Richard, but these requests are politely repulsed by their friendly Holiday Advisors. They are very happy to take messages, but nothing comes of that. They are also not allowed to give out Richard’s (or anyone’s) direct email address (more secrets) but they promise to forward emails that we have been sending to them email@example.com.
These Holiday Advisors did try to be helpful and we developed quite a rapport with some of them. Some were even prepared to confirm that our emails have been forwarded to Richard. This went on, week after week for months on end. But answers came there none.
But then, out of the blue a letter arrived from Richard on 7th December 2016. But sadly the letter showed no indication that they would reveal their secret data soon. He did assure us that Forest Holidays:
“absolutely pride ourselves on protecting and enhancing the forest environment in accordance with the all statutory procedures and practices” (sic).
That was so comforting to know!
He went on:
“Once we are in a position to confidently release data concerning Fineshade into the public domain, this will be available for everyone to use.”
Yes, when data is released into the public domain it is generally available for everyone to use – so no surprises there!
But whatever could he mean by “once we are in a position to confidently release data”? Why would they not be in a position to release data confidently? He didn’t explain that – he just sent his kind regards and signed off.
Photo: Northants Telegraph
It seems that withholding information is something of an art form at FH.
A letter out of the blue...
... but the secrets remain
It is a strange sort of partnership where one partner has potentially useful information but keeps it from the other even when the other asks for it.
We keep on asking Richard for the data and we keep pressing the Forestry Commission to ask for the information too. It is a strange sort of partnership where one partner has potentially useful information but keeps it from the other, and where the other won’t even ask for it.
With the start of the Back from the Brink Project, which the Forestry Commission supports, it is surely their duty to get hold of and make public the surveys they have allowed Forest Holidays to carry out. After all, the project is concentrating on 15 priority species, 8 of which (Adders, bats and birds) were surveyed. Forest Holidays know more about the adders, bats and birds in Fineshade Wood than the Forestry Commission, but they are still keeping their knowledge secret.
In November 2018 we wrote to Richard Palmer as follows
I am writing once again to ask you to release the results of the ecological surveys in Fineshade Wood commissioned by Forest Holidays in 2015-16. It is now 2 years since my last request (copied below) though I understand that your partners, the Forestry Commission, have been asking repeatedly for this valuable information. You will be aware of the Back from the Brink project based in Fineshade which, backed by FC, seeks to support the threatened species your surveys investigated.
Your reply of 6/12/16 stated:
"As a partner of the Forestry Commission, we absolutely pride ourselves on protecting and enhancing the forest environment in accordance with the all statutory procedures and practices. Once we are in a position to confidently release data concerning Fineshade into the public domain, this will be available for everyone to use.”
Of course, this new request comes in the context of
your statement last week that you have no plans to develop Fineshade,
the internal DEFRA review of FC/FH relationships,
our MP’s questions in Parliament (this email is copied to Tom Pursglove MP),
Friends of Fineshade's forthcoming meeting with Michael Gove.
I would therefore be grateful for an urgent response.
By December 2018 there had been no response from Mr Palmer, even though the Forestry Commission had now declared that there will be no further applications by Forest Holidays here.
By September 2019 there had still been no reply so we wrote to Mr Palmer again. Also, with the renamed Forestry England drawing up a new Forest Management Plan for Fineshade Wood, we asked that they should again attempt to extract the secret data from Forest Holidays. How can FE carry out proper management of the Public Forest Estate while their partners refuse to release potentially important data?
And so, finally...
In November 2019 Forestry England's ecologist was informed that at long, long last Forest Holidays were making their data public: it had been sent to the Northants Biological Records Centre. Once NBRC had validated the records they sent a copy to Friends of Fineshade and we passed it on to those who were in a positions to use it - The Back from the Brink project based at Fineshade, The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, and of course to Forestry England.
The data included the following interesting records:
Three Dormice nests had been found right in the middle of Fineshade Wood and close to the proposed Forest Holidays development. As this is a European-level Protected Species it would have provided strong evidence that the development could not go ahead.
Great Crested Newts were found in three of the six ponds surveyed - another EU Protected Species that Forest Holidays would have had to try to move.
It was claimed that a Greater Horseshoe Bat had been found. Fineshade is way outside the range of this species so this record is being viewed with caution. It is either an extremely important record, or FH's consultants mis-identified its call.
A Wall butterfly was listed - this is a species that became extinct in Northants in the year 2000. So this is another record with a question mark over it.
All four reptile species were recorded including three Adder records.
There were also records of Badgers, bats, other butterflies, moths and dragonflies.
With all that powerful evidence of Fineshade's rich biodiversity, it is perhaps not surprising that FH and Forestry England decided not to try to take their development proposals forward. It's good to know that the data has at last come to light, but it's a great shame that FH couldn't have released them earlier, after all they say they "absolutely pride ourselves on protecting and enhancing the forest environment".