By Gemma Childe on 5th Jul 2012
A decline in birds, plants and butterflies can be reversed if the Government invests in caring for publicly owned woodlands, according to campaigners.
The public forest estate costs the taxpayer about £20 million annually but delivers many times that in benefits to people's health, recreation, tourism and natural services, the RSPB has said.
The wildlife charity called on the Government to recognise that the value of forests goes beyond wood or land prices, ahead of the publication of an independent report into England's woods.
Nick Phillips, from the RSPB, said the public forest estate should be managed with a remit to focus on people and wildlife.
With woodland wildlife numbers plummeting in recent decades, ensuring public forests are well-managed to help species recover would give the Government a chance commit to protecting nature.
Last year, ministers launched a bid to transfer ownership of public forests, currently managed by the Forestry Commission, to businesses and charities.
But a public outcry forced the Government to rethink the plans, which had also suggested that communities pay for woodlands they currently enjoy for free.
Mr Phillips said the public reaction to the proposed sell-off had shown how much people valued their forests and that the amount of money needed to sustain them was "peanuts" but would have major benefits.
"A little bit of Government investment will reward generations, but if they don't do it now heathland and ancient woodland will be lost forever," he warned.
Ministers have set up an independent panel to assess the future of England's forests, which is delivering its final report this week, and is expected to emphasise the importance of maintaining a public forest estate.
Paul Wilkinson, from The Wildlife Trusts, said: "There should be a Public Forest Estate with a new purpose, focused on nature, people's connection to nature and the delivery of other public benefits.”