Reimagining the Law of the Forest

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Law, Politics and Sociology


Reimagining the Law of the Forest explores human-forest relationships of rights and responsibility at a time of political awakening to the place of English woodlands in the public consciousness. It comes in the year of the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, and in the wake of an abandoned government proposal to privatise the entire Public Forest Estate and a subsequent independent public consultation on the future of English woodlands. The consultation advocated the development of a new 'woodland culture', framed in terms of market-based incentives for private landowners to provide ecosystem services; while the original proposal to privatise revealed how little legal protection there is for English public forests at present.

The project aims to deepen and re-evaluate our understanding of human-forest relations for two main reasons.

First, in the context of national and international priorities on sustainable development the project seeks to draw lessons from legal history and philosophy to contribute towards shaping the future design of forest law and policy for long-term environmental sustainability. It will provide the knowledge to improve the legal protection that forests and woodlands lack.

Second, it aims to increase public awareness of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of forests as biodiverse natural habitats that are also rich in resources, cultural and social significance, and essential for the stability of the Earth's climate. The project findings will contribute to the new woodland culture that the public consultation said was needed, and to ensuring that this culture is based on legal protection and shared cultural values towards forests and woodlands.

The project will analyse the history of human-forest relations in English law and society over the centuries, which has been characterised by shifts in power and property relations that have driven plunder more than preservation. Today, forests in England represent only around 10% of total land area, compared with 15% 1,000 years ago, and a current European average of 37% (Forestry Commission statistics 2014). Through archival and empirical research, the project will explore the historical basis of human-forest relations in England, the cultural, legal and social factors that have led to the contemporary moral crisis over public forests and woodlands, and the tension between the extent of human needs and rights to exploit forests and our responsibilities to protect them. The project also re-evaluates our relationship with forests drawing upon an emergent area in legal theory known as Wild Law, or Earth Jurisprudence. These ecocentric approaches see nature as an object of human responsibility and hold the potential for synergy between the public rejection of privatisation of the Public Forest Estate and market-based approaches to environmental governance. They have been most influential at an international level in UN General Assembly debates on the Sustainable Development Goals and can be applied practically, in the context of climate change, environmental stewardship, the protection of indigenous peoples' rights, and rethinking property regimes. However, as an emergent area of study, little of this research has focused on Europe, or England and the UK.

The project is unique in its interdisciplinary approach to exploring human-forest relations in the context of culture, law and society throughout English history, and the educational and policy potential this offers. Beyond academia, the outcomes of this project will be of interest to policymakers, third sector forest and woodland conservation organisations, forest education institutions, landowners of private woodlands and the general public.

Planned Impact

The research will principally impact two main groups outside of academia:

1. Third sector and wider public, including landowners

Working in partnership with the Woodland Trust - the UK's largest woodland conservation charity with over 500,000 members and supporters and more than 1,000 sites in the UK - the project will contribute a new historical and socio-legal perspective on human-forest relations in England to the body of policy-oriented forest research currently being produced by the third sector. It will also increase public awareness of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of forests, the cultural, legal and social history of human-forest relations in England and the role of law in their plunder and conservation, and enhance cultural enrichment of the general public and landowners around 'shared values' and environmental responsibility.

Periods of archival research, placement, networking and interviews throughout the project provide opportunities for knowledge exchange and exploring ways of using the project to address policy priorities with key third sector stakeholders and landowners, as well as forest museums and heritage centres and linked local history groups. Aspects of the research will be published in an open access format for wide educational dissemination and use in schools, colleges, universities and by forest educational charities, leading to new learning and understanding on the history of human-forest relations, rights and responsibilities, which may be integrated into existing programmes in land law, forestry and environmental governance.

2. Policymakers and public sector agencies

Working in partnership with Forest Research (the Forestry Commission) - the principal organisation for forestry and tree-related research in the UK - the project will contribute to contemporary policy debates on law and environmental sustainability, forest conservation and climate change. The project will inform discussion among researchers, practitioners and policymakers in the UK and internationally, on how forest laws could be developed to make responsibility for the environment, sustainable land use and the equitable sharing of forest resources the central focus. Key findings from the research will be disseminated through an open access policy brief and international conference paper presentation at the International Union of Forest Research Organisations World Conference in 2019. These in turn have the potential to impact on public and private sector land management and law reform at a national and global level.


10 25 50
publication icon
Dancer H (2020) Harmony with Nature: towards a new deep legal pluralism in The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law

Description "Guardians of the Rivers" and the future of Earth Law: towards a new Legal, Ecological and Participatory (LEAP) model for Environmental Humanities?
Amount £73,389 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/V00574X/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2020 
End 09/2021
Description Invited speaker at Forest Research, Alice Holt, Hampshire UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation of research findings: 'Law, Conflict and Shared Values in the New Forest' to an audience of forestry sector research professionals in government, which sparked questions and discussion and further invitations to present to stakeholders within the sector.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description UKELA Nature Conservation working party response to government consultation on Landscapes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The UK Environmental Law Association Nature Conservation working party submitted a written response to DEFRA's consultation on Landscapes (National Parks and AONBs). PI was a contributing author to the submission.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Wild Law and Activism conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The conference was organised with the UK Environmental Law Association Wild Law Special Interest Group. Its purpose was to explore the connections between ecocentric legal approaches to human-earth relations and the current context of activism to protect the planet. The conference included indigenous rights activists and speakers from national and international organisations, including Stop Ecocide and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, legal practitioners and scholars. The conference also launched the UK Earth Law Judgments Project, which will engage legal practitioners, academics and the general public in reimagining the relationship between people and planet in law.

A report of the conference was published in the UKELA members' publication: Dancer, H. 2020. 'Wild Law and Activism Conference held at Sussex', UKELA e-law 117:8 and on the website of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Workshop on Human-Forest Relations: Equity and Inclusion in Law, Culture and Ecology 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The three day workshop invited an international group of researchers and activists from academia, government, the third sector and independent researchers into a creative space at the National Arboretum, Westonbirt, UK to generate new ideas and visionary thinking on the relationship between people, trees and forests.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019