Confor complains to BBC about online story

14 April 2020

Confor has issued a formal complaint to the BBC about its coverage of a report by the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), under the headline Climate Change: UK forests could do more harm than good.

Roger Harrabin, the BBC's Environment Analyst, quoted the NCC report - on using nature-based interventions to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - as saying that "planting trees into peat bogs would be a serious mistake" - but did not seek comment from Confor or any professional source on whether such a practice was likely to happen. 

There was a strong response from the forestry community, with former Forestry Commission Chair Sir Harry Studholme saying: "No-one is advocating planting on peat! UK forestry has for decades had a code to prevent it." Sir Harry went on to describe the headline as "sorry, sensationalist and unnecessary".

Confor complained on the basis that no professional foresters, or forestry bodies, were asked to comment to provide balance - and that the BBC report used emotive language, including "carpeting upland pastures with trees". 

The complaint says: "Having searched the NCC report we cannot find use of the word 'carpeting' which is an emotive term suggesting that Britain's uplands would be covered completely with trees. No-one - not least the government - is suggesting this.  

"A further complaint is that - despite leading with the statement that UK forests 'could do more harm than good' the reporter did not seek comment from any qualified professional foresters or forestry organisations such as Confor to respond to this accusation.  Had Confor been asked for a comment, we could have provided an expert response quickly that would have meant a more balanced article as a result." 

Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall has also written about the report to Zac Goldsmith, the UK Government Minister responsible for forestry, forestry, noting that the report opened the door to sensationalist reporting and that the NCC should also consult with Confor before providing ‘expert’ comment on the sector. 

His letter says: "Suggesting that forests ‘could do more harm than good’ is clearly preposterous. Reflecting widespread concern from foresters, Confor has taken the step of complaining to the BBC about this article - something we have never done before."

The letter goes on to say: "Confor supports the principle of planting ‘the right tree in the right place’ and promotes working to the Government’s UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) – probably the most advanced and complete standard for sustainable activity of any sector in the UK. 

"UKFS, first published in 1998, ensures that the examples used by the Natural Capital Committee of bad practice - afforestation of peatlands in the late 20th century and the felling and replacement of ancient native woodlands with fast growing productive species - do not happen again. Confor has been vocal and clear for many, many years that such practices should never occur again.

"Staggeringly, in a 26-page report, with numerous mentions of tree planting, there is no mention of UKFS or any recognition of the sea-change in practice since the 1980s."

Mr Goodall concludes: "The NCC, as an adviser to Government, has a responsibility to ensure it consults and engages with those sectors it is providing advice on – Confor has not been approached by the NCC. Moving forward, we would be pleased to work with NCC." 

The letter was copied to Professor Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, and to Forestry Commission Chair Sir William Worsley. 

Confor will report on the BBC's reply when it is received.