It may seem strange to talk about our natural environment being ‘under managed’. We often associate a healthy natural environment with wilderness, and assume that it is active human management that leads to problems. However, very little of our landscape is truly ‘natural’. From high hills to ancient woodland it has all been shaped by generations of management, and it is often when we cease to take an active role that the problems start.
The Forestry Panel which reported this summer identified that only half of our woodlands are in sustainable management, leading to a decline in habitat quality and biodiversity. More dramatically, it might be argued that the extent of the sudden spread of ash die back may not have gone unnoticed if more people were actively working in our woodlands.
Whilst there is increasing recognition of the need for greater active management of our environmental assets, there are significant skills gaps to overcome if we are going to engage more people in the management of our woodlands, green spaces and waterways, and create new opportunities to develop sustainable local economies.
Often ‘‘the green skills gap” refers to skills in the new green-tech industries and the fitting of insulation and solar panels. However there are also significant, well documented, gaps to be filled in the practical fields of forestry, horticulture and landscape management. The forestry workforce is aging with a lack of new entrants at a time when large stands of commercial woodland are coming to maturity, and in horticulture skills gaps are being filled by workers from overseas.
Steps are being taken to create new opportunities for young people to gain skills and experience through apprenticeships in more traditional skills but there is also a need for new and more flexible capabilities.
Landowners, from local authorities to conservation charities, are reviewing how they manage their environmental assets. Many are considering new forms of governance and management that can reduce costs, create new income streams and broaden public engagement. They are increasingly seeing the social, environmental and economic advantages of opening up their land to enable local community enterprises to develop their own activities, services or environmental businesses. These new forms of management often involve a mixed portfolio of activities such as education, training, leisure and hospitality services, built around a core activity such as woodland management, food growing or power generation.
LANTRA, the sector skills council for land based industries, has already identified that this diversification of the activities, taking place alongside traditional environmental management, requires new skills in communication, facilitation, and public awareness. These skills will also be critical in the development of new management and governance arrangements with existing landowners.
In addition we are seeing new markets developing for renewable heat and power, local food, affordable low impact housing and natural building materials. These all present opportunities for the development of new local supply chains, but require skills in business development, marketing, negotiation and the ability to access new forms of investment and funding.
We believe that bringing our under managed woodlands, waterways and green spaces back into active management provides opportunities to improve the quality of our environment whilst developing new sustainable local economies based upon the use of renewable natural resources. For this to be successful however it is critical that we support the development of a land based workforce which embodies a mixture of ancient knowledge, traditional skills and modern social entrepreneurship.
What other skills might we need to realise our vision for a 21st century commons?