In 2010, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Defra) announced proposals to sell 258,000 hectares of Forestry
Commission land. This was met with heavy public resistance and in
February 2011, the then Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman
decided to halt the sale and set up an independent panel of
selected stakeholders to address issues of concern.
The Independent Panel on Forestry released their report in 2012
which proposed that the public forest estate should remain in
public ownership, and that this should be reflected and defined in
statute. The report acknowledged the health benefits associated
with daily walks on the public forest estate as well as the
financial significance of the estate which has been estimated to
provide annual returns of £400 million.
In January 2013, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, David
Health announced that the government supports the Panel's report's
proposal and will be establishing a new public body to manage the
public forest estate, which will have greater independence from
government and freedom to manage its resources and income.
Dog Owners and Forestry Commission Land
In England, 66% of all accessible woodland is owned by the
Forestry Commission (FC) which means that any proposed change to
the status of the public forest estate could be potentially
devastating unless the existing access provisions were to be
protected through binding agreements. However, previous research
has demonstrated that such agreements are unlikely to be completely
effective. This concern is further exacerbated in that public
access to privately owned woodland has a disproportionally poor
record in securing and providing access.
Research commissioned by Natural England illustrates that one or
more dogs accompany people on 48% of all visits to the countryside
and green spaces illustrating the woodland's importance to the
nation's 8 million dogs and the 15 million people who care for
them. FC woodland is particularly important for walkers with dogs,
as FC surveys indicate they are the single biggest, year-round
visitor to their sites.
In addition, the sale of FC land may have a detrimental impact
on dog sports such as husky racing and training as under any new
sale without the protection of permissive access rights, there
would be no guarantee of the new owners allowing sporting events to
occur. As a consequence, this would leave a large number of
Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes vulnerable as owners depend
almost entirely on FC land for trails for the dogs' regular
exercise and mental well-being.
Thus the FC's concession of generally allowing year-round,
off-lead access for dog owners is exceptionally and uniquely
valuable, as this reduces off-lead dog walking in more sensitive
areas. Off-lead access is the single most important amenity for dog
owners; it is also essential for allowing dogs to exhibit their
natural behaviour, which owners have a duty to permit under the
Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The Kennel Club's Position
The Kennel Club welcomes the Minister's announcement of
supporting the Panel report's proposal of retaining the forest
estate in public ownership as well as the Panel's recognition of
the various benefits associated with daily walks on the public
forest estate and its positive impact on all access users.