The government’s investment zones could put the UK’s ancient woodlands under threat, the head of the Woodland Trust has warned.
An ancient woodland is one that has existed continuously since at least 1600. They are a precious part of the country’s history, store large amounts of carbon and are important habitats for animals.
The government has proposed investment zones, where planning and environmental rules will be relaxed and tax breaks put in place, to encourage companies to build infrastructure and set up business.
Wildlife charities have said the loosening of regulations could put nature in peril, as many exist to protect fragile ecosystems from development.
Analysis by the Woodland Trust found there were more than 125,000 hectares of ancient woodland within the council areas of the 38 authorities who were known initially to have expressed an interest in investment zones.
The opportunity for other councils to declare an interest closed on 14 October but the information about how many more have signed up has not been released, so the number under threat could increase.
Darren Moorcroft, the chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said: “On the basis of what we have learned from government so far since the mini-budget and the retained EU law bill, this combination of plans could see the UK lose more trees and woods – and plant fewer – at a time when we need to strengthen protection and ramp up woodland expansion to tackle the nature and climate crises.
“We are especially concerned about the protection of ancient woods and trees in new investment zones, where planning rules would be weaker and recent so-called assurances have done nothing to allay our fears.
“These are unprecedented times for the environment on which we depend for our prosperity and quality of life. The last thing we need is to weaken protections and create uncertainties for farmers and landowners who are helping to ready our countryside for the battle against the climate change ahead.”
There are also fears that undesignated ancient woodlands and trees that have not been given legal protection will be threatened further by a push for development.
Enterprise zones – which could be used as a model for investment zones – do not include explicit protections for ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees.
There is likely to be some pushback on these plans from Conservative MPs. The former environment minister Rebecca Pow told the Guardian that failing to protect ancient woodlands would be a breach of the Environment Act.
“The ancient woodland in this country is our equivalent of the rainforest. It is an absolute travesty that only 2% remains and we must ensure that no more is lost. In the Environment Act, a commitment was made to review the national planning policy framework to ensure it is being correctly implemented regarding ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees,” she said.
“There was also a commitment to consult on strengthening the wording to better ensure the strongest protection for these habitats whilst recognising the complex delivery challenges for major infrastructure.”
Naomi Tilley, of the Woodland Trust, has asked members and supporters to contact their MP. “We know from experience that planning processes and policy are critical tools in protecting ancient woodland. We cannot afford to bypass them,” she said.
A study published on Wednesday found that ancient woodlands play a vital role in biodiversity and ecosystem preservation by providing stability, strength, and protection to at-risk environments.
The article, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, highlights the importance of preserving these monumental organisms. “Ancient trees are unique habitats for the conservation of threatened species because they can resist and buffer climate warming,” write the authors, including Gianluca Piovesan and Charles H Cannon.
Ancient trees are hotspots for mycorrhizal connectivity, the symbiotic relationship with underground fungi that supplies plants with many of the nutrients they need to survive. This symbiosis with fungi also helps reduce drought in dry environments.
Ancient trees play a disproportionately large role in conservation planning yet are being lost globally at an alarming rate.
A government spokesperson said: “Reports claiming the government is downgrading the strong and established protections for national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and protected sites are factually inaccurate.
“National greenbelt policy will continue to apply and all proposals must have consent from local planners or national park authorities. Those that do not will not be taken forward and cannot become an investment zone.”