The Voice Of The People Of The Forest of Dean

Submission to the Panel investigating the way forward for Forestry

1. Dean Forest Voice

Dean Forest Voice (DFV) was born out of a meeting held in Cinderford, in the Forest of Dean, in March 2001 in conjunction with the then Countryside Agency (CA) The CA subsequently became Natural England.

The purpose of the meeting was primarily to put the CA Officer in touch with local Forest people and their opinions, and to gain a greater appreciation of the area in general.

Towards the end of the meeting there was a strong dersire to form an organisation, one that would represent and provide a voice for the Forest people, and to protect the Traditions, Heritage, Dialect and Culture of the Forest of Dean.

DFV was formally constituted at an inaugural general meeting in September 2001. Since then it's membership has grown in excess of 1000.

We are constantly consulting the public and seeking their views both by public meetings and by attending local shows and events.

Since the threat of a sell-off of the Forest of Dean, DFV has played a major part in establishing the group HANDS OFF OUR FOREST (HOOF) with some members of DFV serving on the steering committee.

2. The Forest of Dean

Situated between the River Severn and the Wye Gorge is the Forest of Dean, geographically isolated and with a character of it's own.

The Forest is an area of contradictions and contrasts. In turns it has been a wildwood, a royal hunting ground, a naval timber preserve and an industrial centre. Now known and valued for it's natural beauty and wildlife, the past is inextricably interwoven with the present.

Dean actually covers over 120,000 acres, but much of the land is farmed and the woodland area now consists of about 27,000 acres at the heart. This is Crown Land, vested in the Forestry Commission (FC), and constitutes most people's idea of a forest. Substantial parts of it consist of native trees.

Today, except for the New Forest, Dean remains the largest ancient forest in public ownership in Britain. Broadleaf trees,significantly oak, have dominated much of Dean's history: even now it is Britain's premier oak forest, and the general perception of it's character is of oakwoods.

Overall, the Forest- currently both broadleaved and coniferous - is regarded as a 'working Forest' managed by Forest Enterprise (FE) for multi-purposes - chiefly timber production, the conservation of nature, and the protection and enhancement of the landscape, in particular as an environment for compatible outdoor recreation.

Because of the composition of the industrial past- significantly connected with iron, stone, coal and their transport- there remains a wealth of diverse industrial archaeology which today is generally regarded as an asset to the Forest rather than a detraction.

Geologically, the Forest of Dean is an oval bowl of carboniferous limestone, stretching about 10 miles from north to south beneath which were large deposists of iron-ore. The pennant sandstones of Dean are interspersed with numerous coal seams, of which the Coleford High Delf is the most important. At it's peak total output of coal rarely fell below 1,000,000 tons per year, but after World War II a decline set in and the last deep mine closed in 1965.

Unlike anywhere else in the country all the mines in the Forest of Dean Coalfield were situated on Statutory Forest Land and the mining communities scattered outside or within the perimeter of the forest itself.

3. Customs and Traditions

3a. Free Mining

Beneath the tree-covered acres of the forest lie the coal seams of the Dean. Mining has taken place in the Forest of Dean for over 2000 years.

In recent times mining has been carried out on a large scale by private mining companies, and more recently by the NCB. The last deep mine employing hundreds of men closed in the early 1950s leaving mining activities in the Dean to the Free Miners.

The mines are small, mostly occupying two or three men working a coal level (a horizontal tunnel) or a drift ( an inclined tunnel) into the hillside.

The Forest of Dean Free Miners hold the exclusive fee simple right to mine the iron ore and coal deposits; with less exclusive rights over stone, clay and sand.

Forest of Dean Free Miners are unique, as is their protective legislation. The Dean Forest Mines Act, 1838 is the only public Act ever to confirm a local custom into law. The custom itself is thought to go back beyond the Norman Conquest and its uniqueness plays a big part in distinguishing the Forester's identity. All of this activity is regulated by the FC through its Deputy Gaveller.

All the activity takes place beneath the surface of the Statutory Forest of Dean, which only serves to add to its uniqueness.

3b. The Commoners and Commoning

Commoning (or the right to pasture) in the Statutory Forest is a privilege, suffered by the Crown and the FC under appropriate conditions. Throughout many vicissitudes the relevant local populace have enjoyed and held tenaciously to the custom.

Following the culling of all sheep in the forest due to the disastrous Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic in 2001, a new Agreement on commoning, dated 17.12. 2001, was made between the FC and the Commoners Association, resulting in sheep returning to the Forest in Spring 2002.

The rights to common are recognised and preserved by the Dean Forest (Reafforestation) Act 1667. This statute recognises the right to common over the open un-inclosed waste in the Statutory Forest.

4. Governance of the Forest Of Dean

The Forest of Dean, including the Statutory Forest and the contiguous woods, is administered by the Forest of Dean District Council (FoDDC). At the lower tier of local administration there are the Town and and District Councils.

The FoDDC has control of all development proposals within the Statutory Forest and works closely with FC on such issues. All Town and Parish Councils have scrutiny of - and comment on- proposals that affect their Wards.

The Statutory Forest, save for ancient enclosures and the encroachments legalised by the Dean Forest Encroachment Acts 1838 and 1844, is Crown property vested in the Minister and placed at the disposal of the Forestry Commission who's officers administer it under rules and regulations. Currently it is managed by the FC through its deputy surveyor and its minerals through its deputy gaveller.

4a. The Verderers

Today the Verderers are the only remnant of the ancient forest administration: there are four of them in Dean, and they constitute the Verderers' Court, which is still held at the Speech House in the centre of the Forest.

Their court of attachment was for long synonymous with the unique 'court of speech'. Only the verderers of Dean continue to be elected (under the supervision of the sheriff) and to hold office according to ancient custom: the verderers of the New Forest and Epping Forest have been reconstituted under modern status.

The main role of the verderers today is to guard the vert and venison. They serve in an advisory capacity on forest matters and work closely with; and advise the Forestry Commission

4b. The Deputy Gaveller

The Deputy Gaveller is the Forestry Commission's representative in connection with the coal and iron ore of the Forest. He is responsible for granting gales* and seeing that they are worked according to statutory regulations set out in the Dean Forest Mine enactments. He also collects galeage rents and royalties. Currently the office of gaveller is held by the Forestry Commission in respect of coal and iron.

The Office of Gaveller is of ancient origin, and the office of gaveller in Dean Forest is of unique interest and has been handed down unbroken to the present day.

* A gale is a grant of specific seams of coal or deposits of iron ore or stone in a specific situation. The grant, as also the subject matter of the grant, is known as a 'gale'.

4c. The Deputy Surveyor

The administration of the Forest, under the Forestry Act, 1945 is delegated to the Forestry Commission and its Deputy Surveyor.

He is in charge of the Forest for Forest Enterprise with the addition of several extensive neighbouring woodlands, and is profoundly involved with the administration and regulation of commoning. He is also steward of the Crown manors and 'an inspector of railways' within the Forest.

An appraisal of section 4 will indicate how the management of the Dean's Forest, and of the minerals and ores that lie beneath, are subject to ancient laws and present day laws administered by both modern and ancient administrations.

All work 'hand in glove' and have proved to be successful for the last century - if not longer.

5. The Countryside Agency

In November 1999 a team from the (then) Countryside Agency (now Natural England) visited the Forest of Dean as part of an investigation into the granting of "Special Status". The members commented favourably on the ways in which their perspectives on the Forest of Dean changed as a result of the visit.

The members visited the Cannop Valley, an area that illustrated the impacts that small scale coal mining and quarrying have had in the Forest over hundreds of years. Such activities, they said, blend into the Forest Landscape and are regarded as part of the area's heritage by the local people.

By travelling through towns such as Cinderford, and the villages of the west and south, members saw how closely these patterns are integrated with the forested areas. The area is relatively isolated and members realised how this isolation, although problematic, was also a benefit in maintaining a strong sense of local identity and of industrial and cultural heritage.

They realised that the Forest of Dean is UNIQUE and said so.

6. The Case for maintaining the Status Quo

The late Lord Bledisloe QC, speaking in the House of Lords when the Government of the day proposed the selling off of forest land in 1981, had this to say about the Forest of Dean:

"The Forest of Dean is wholly different. It is an historic Crown forest in which an entire community has developed, using and enjoying the land in many ways which are not protected by legal rights. It is also an area in which nowadays visitors come from all over the country, and indeed from elsewhere, to picnic, to camp, and to do other things which do not exist as legal rights" He went on to say that "It is those privileges which can be wholly lost if this land is sold to private persons" HL Deb 11 May 1981vol 420

It is, therefore, only by virtue of the Forestry Commission's respect for these customary privileges that the inhabitants of the Forest and visitors are able to enjoy, for example, walking, cycling, horse riding, picnicking, following scenic trails and the running of sheep.

When in 1981 the then Government proposed to sell forest woodlands members of all political parties in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords recognised the uniqueness of the Forest of Dean and exempted it from the power of sale.

This evidence and that of the preceding paragraphs 1 - 5 serve to illustrate this uniqueness. It shows how, over hundreds of years the Forest people and their communities and environment has evolved and developed all totally dependant on each other.

Many of the homesteads and the communities are within the very boundaries of the forest that are at issue.

The process of government and control has evolved over centuries to include modern day Town and Parish Councils and the Forestry Commission, and the historic bodies of the Verderers and the Gavellers. All combine to make it work and to understand how and why it works.

When an area such as the Forest of Dean is struck by Foot and Mouth Disease, or Dutch Elm Disease, it is only the expertise and knowledge of the Forestry Commission that can handle such emergencies. That the Forestry commission should remain in control of the Dean is of paramount importance. Since its instigation it has managed to strike a balance between the needs of recreation and leisure, and the running of a commercial forest. It has done so as well as keeping close contact to; and consulting with the residents and those who exploit the traditional rights of Free Mining and Commoning.

Dean Forest Voice believe that to try to break this pattern up would be a disaster for the Forest of Dean. It would destroy a way of life that has evolved over hundreds of years and has been found to work.

Let us maintain the Status Quo.