Who owns England’s woods?

This post is by Guy Shrubsole. Image: Max Porter, with thanks.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise: a third of England’s woodlands are owned by just a thousand landowners.

That’s the central finding of my new investigation into who owns England’s woods. The analysis also raises questions how private woods are used – with many of them kept off-limits to the general public in order to maintain them as pheasant shoots, despite receiving public subsidies.

With an estimated 57 million gamebirds now released into the countryside annually, with potentially major ecological impacts, isn’t it time to make a little more room in England’s woods for us peasants – and a little less for the pheasants?

Uncovering woodland ownership

Given the strategic importance of timber in English history, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that there hasn’t been a proper national analysis of woodland ownership. The indefatigable Andy Wightman has researched forest ownership in Scotland, but no-one appears to have done a similar study for England. Even though the Forestry Commission was set up to deal with the country’s post-war timber shortage in 1919, there doesn’t seem to have been any sort of ‘Domesday of England’s woods’, at least not a public one.

The nearest I can find is a set of surveys of woodland owners, the first from 1969, and a more recent series started in 2012. However, these were intended as sample surveys, gauging attitudes of owners; none seek to paint a picture of overall levels of ownership concentration, or reveal who the owners are. The Forestry Commission’s annual stats show that around 84% of England’s woods are privately owned; but again, there is no further breakdown of ownership.

My new analysis relies on two datasets. The first is an assessment I previously carried out with the botanist Tim Harris of the woodlands owned by England’s ten largest landowners. The methodology for this is detailed elsewhere, but I’ve reproduced the table of results below for ease of reference:

LandownerAcreage owned in EnglandAcreage woodland%age woodland
Forestry Commission489,814414,29385%
National Trust474,64184,43318%
MOD397,09860,31115%
Crown Estate264,23340,55815%
United Utilities141,00016,84912%
Highways England114,31413,53812%
Network Rail100,52510,69311%
RSPB127,03212,13310%
Duchy of Cornwall130,6397,3616%
Church Commissioners105,000 (mapped 73,000 acres)3,2153%-4%
Total2,344,296 (7% of England)663,384 
England32,000,0003,240,000*10% woodland cover

*Source of English woodland area figure: Forestry Commission, Provisional Woodland Statistics 2020, p.8.

So, the top 10 landowners own 20% of England’s woodland (663,384 acres out of 3.24 million acres of woodland in total).

The second dataset I’ve relied on to expand this analysis is called the English Woodland Grant Scheme dataset. It’s a bit of a buried treasure trove.

The England Woodland Grant Scheme (or EWGS for short) was a suite of subsidies distributed by the Forestry Commission to woodland owners for the creation and maintainenance of woods. The scheme has now ended, but the FC still publish an EWGS dataset on their website. This is a geospatial dataset, meaning it lists not only the recipients of the subsidy, but also shows the boundaries of the woodland areas they got the funding for.

With farm subsidy data, many of the recipients are tenant farmers, not landowners. But landowners more usually retain ownership and control of woods and forestry on their estates, even if they let out the fields to tenant farmers. So with the EWGS dataset, we can be more certain that the recipients are freehold landowners. We can be doubly sure by just looking at the entries labelled as being ‘estates’, of which there are many.

So this blog isn’t even longer, I’ve detailed the methodology used to analyse the EWGS dataset in this GoogleDoc. But I’d like to give a big thanks here to Nick Harvey, PhD candidate in conservation science at the University of Manchester, who helped out by extracting all entries in the EWGS recorded as being ‘estates’. This made it a lot easier for me to then manually clean up the data.

Results

Combining the findings from the two datasets gives us the following results:

  • 404,362 acres of estate-owned woodland from the EWGS dataset owned by 1,000 landowners
  • Plus 663,384 acres owned by the country’s top ten institutional landowners
  • = A total of 1,067,746 acres of woodland, or 33% of England’s total woodland area.

In other words, a third of England’s woodlands are owned by 1,000 landowners.

Who are the woodland owners?

Besides the top ten institutional landowners mentioned earlier, all of the 1000 or so woodland owners I’ve analysed from the EWGS data are listed in this Google Spreadsheet, along with the acreage of woodland for which they received subsidies.

The size of the GIS files involved means it’s hard for this to be easily displayed in online maps. But if you have GIS software, you can download a zipped Shapefile of the data here:

And here’s a static map showing the overall extent of woodland owned by these thousand landowners, including the institutional owners:

To give you a flavour of the landowners revealed by the EWGS data, here’s a table showing the top 11 (I’ve chosen the top 11 rather than top 10, as it allows me to include Her Maj the Queen). Using other sources – from estate websites to the Land Registry Corporate & Commercial dataset – I’ve been able to state the total known area of each estate, so we can work out the percentage covered in woods.

Estate nameArea of woodland in EWGS (acres) Total estate area (acres)%age woodland coverOwner
Sheffield City Council woods 4,523 16,35928%Sheffield City Council
Lowther Estate 4,051 34,23412%Earl Lonsdale (L.E.T. Nominees)
Longleat Estate 3,929 9,22643%Marquess of Bath
Chatsworth Estate 3,816 35,00011%Duke of Devonshire
Leconfield Estate 3,513 14,00025%Lord Egremont (Baron Leconfield)
Englefield Estate 3,456 12,16828%Richard Benyon, ex-MP
Bathurst Estate 3,444 14,50024%Earl Bathurst
Cowdray Estate 3,361 16,50020%Viscount Cowdray
Fonthill Estate 3,352 9,00037%Baron Margadale
Bedford Estates 3,327 21,47415%Duke of Bedford (Woburn Estates Co Ltd)
Sandringham Estate 3,199 20,00016%Queen Elizabeth II
Totals39,972 202,46120%

As you can see, all of them have substantial areas of woods – nearly all of them larger than the Church Commissioners, who came at the bottom of the institutional landowner league table shown earlier.

The vast majority comprise large and ancient aristocratic estates – two dukes, two earls, a marquess, a viscount and two barons – whose families and landholdings go back a very long way.

The three exceptions to this are Richard Benyon, former MP for Newbury and the largest landowner in West Berkshire; Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for the woods on her private estate at Sandringham in Norfolk; and, perhaps surprisingly, Sheffield Council. I say surprisingly because Sheffield Council is rather more notorious for felling street trees over the last few years than it is for owning lots of them. (Note though that the data shown here is only for woodlands: individual street trees, small copses and hedgerows won’t be featured.)

All of these landowners possess estates between 9,000 and 35,000 acres – a lot less than the big institutional landowners featured earlier, but still pretty much in the top tier of private estates (and many of them have other estates elsewhere, too). It’s interesting to note the relatively high proportion of these estates given over to woodland – an average of 20%, twice the English national average. Most impressive of all is the 43% woodland cover on the Longleat Estate; its owner, the (recently deceased) Marquess of Bath, was a renowned forester, with the forestry trade association Confor regularly holding conferences at the estate.

In fact, these numbers are almost certainly a conservative underestimate of the levels of woodland ownership concentration. We can see whether the EWGS dataset captures all woodlands owned by an estate by examining an estate for which we have the full estate boundary, and comparing the EWGS-subsidised woodlands to the National Forest Inventory (NFI), which is the official Forestry Commission record of all woodland over 0.5 hectares (1.24 acres). For instance, let’s look at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate in the Peak District. The main estate surrounding Chatsworth House is shown in blue below; NFI woodland is shown in green; EWGS-subsidised woodlands are shown in yellow. We can see that there are a number of woods on the Chatsworth Estate that aren’t covered by the EWGS maps:

This concentration of woodland ownership in traditional aristocratic estates is also something confirmed by the Sylva Foundation’s ongoing surveys of woodland owners. In their 2012 survey report, they concluded: “There appears to have been remarkable stability in the continuity of ownership of most of the estates over more than a century – in three cases going back 700 years or more, and in one case almost 1,000 years”.

There’s no doubt that some old aristocratic estates have done a lot to preserve ancient woodlands (and old wood pasture, within their parklands), as well as invest in productive forestry operations. Forestry as an aristocratic pursuit goes back at least as far as the 17th century, when diarist and early environmentalist John Evelyn wrote his famous book on trees, Sylva (1662), urging the nation’s aristocrats to replenish the woodland stocks on their estates, in order to furnish the British Navy with timber for her ships in decades and centuries to come. The (archaic and sexist) aristocratic custom of male primogeniture, which helps preserve estates intact by guaranteeing succession to only one inheritor, also perhaps encourages some Peers to think long-term and invest in the slow-growing profits of forestry. But productive forestry and environmentalism are not the only reasons so many aristocrats have large areas of woodland.

Pheasant shoots

Another popular reason for owning large tracts of woodland is for pheasant shoots. Pheasants are a non-native species to Britain, but are released on a vast scale for shooting: some 47 million are now estimated to be released annually (plus 10 million partridges). They favour woodland edge habitats for roosting. If you’ve ever gone for a woodland walk and come across a barrel on three wooden legs – a pheasant feed hopper – you’re in a wood that’s being used for pheasant shooting.

Many of the woodland owners in receipt of public subsidies listed above have large pheasant shoots. For example, Baron Margadale’s Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire, mentioned earlier as owners of over 3,000 acres of woodland, boasts that it has “world renowned pheasant and partridge shooting”. Sure enough, a quick look at Google aerial imagery of the estate reveals tell-tale signs of pheasant breeding pens and cover crops on the edges of their woods (see below).

Personally, I wouldn’t have an issue with people shooting pheasants, were it not for two things:

  1. The sheer scale of the modern-day shooting industry (47m pheasants released yearly without an environmental impact assessment – something legal campaigners Wild Justice have fought in the courts, last week winning a major concession from DEFRA that pheasant shoots will now have to be licensed); and
  2. Because pheasant shoots have become an obstacle to public access to woodlands.

Public access to woods

That’s because the owners of pheasant shoots and their gamekeepers don’t want public access to cause disturbance to their pheasants, particularly during the pheasant shooting season (1st October – 1st February).

I found an example of this recently when going for a walk in Cornwall through an estate where pheasant shooting takes place, and discovered a permissive path through ancient woodland was blocked off for the duration of the shooting season, at least on Saturdays (see photo below).

Another recent instance was flagged on Twitter by author Keggie Carew: an area of downland in Wiltshire, on which there’s normally a Right to Roam, but which has been closed off to the public “to avoid disturbance to game and disruption to shooting”. These are not unusual occurrences, but happen regularly.

Of course there have been battles between landowners and landless folks over game for centuries – from the use of man-traps to deter poachers in the 18th and 19th centuries through to Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. But this isn’t about who gets to eat the ‘fruits of the forest’, but about who gets to even set foot in the woods.

The Right to Roam established by the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 doesn’t currently apply to woodland. But why not? During the original debate over the Act, some MPs proposed amendments to it that would have extended our Right to Roam to woodlands (just as exists in Germany and Scandinavian countries) and river banks. But they were opposed by the pro-shooting Countryside Alliance and some Conservative MPs and never made it into law.

Why shouldn’t woods be more publicly accessible? Forestry Commission woodland is already open to the public and they manage to balance productive forestry operations with public access fine. The only group likely to object are the private woodland owners who use their woods for pheasant shoots: many of whom have benefited from years of public subsidies, as this investigation shows.

Twenty years on from the CRoW Act, and with evidence for the public health benefits of ‘forest bathing’ and access to nature mounting, now is surely the time to extend our Right to Roam to woodlands and other landscapes.

Coda: what’s still to be revealed about woodland owners

Whilst this investigation has revealed the owners of a third of England’s woods, that of course still leaves the owners of the other two-thirds to be unearthed.

That would be a formidable project – but I’m pleased to say someone braver than me has stepped up to the plate! Gabriel Hemery, co-founder of the aforementioned Sylva Foundation, has recently embarked on a personal project to compile ‘The Forest Book’ – which aims to be a new Domesday of Britain’s woods, from the largest forest to the smallest copse. If you can help him identify woodland owners, and give him access to woods to take photos of them, please get in touch with him here!

3 thoughts on “Who owns England’s woods?

  1. Brilliant report:-) In the year 2000 (Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000), Tony Blair had a 200-seat Labour majority, and yet public access to woodland and riverbanks was still denied in that Act.

  2. I have only just discovered your excellent Blog. As an old Rambler I have for some years pondered on many points you raise. Back in 2006 we were passing Haseloar Hall and came across this notice on the public footpath. I posted it on the former Panoramio and attracted many comments from around the world, and a few more local that demanded it should be removed from the site. About two months later the notice was removed.

    http://www.ipernity.com/doc/2254674/44806702/in/album/1021368

    All the best, Peter

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