Image for the news item 'The future of forests' on 10 Jun 2020
Jonathan Spencer

Jonathan Spencer MBE, former Head of Environment for Forestry England, spent a term as a Derek Brewer Visiting Fellow at Emma in 2017.  The benefits for research into the future of our forests were clear.  

For those of us at the “distal” end of their career, opportunities to study at our ancient Universities are really rather limited. I had searched on and off, though not very systematically, but as a result of a stroke of good fortune I heard of the Derek Brewer Fellowship at Emmanuel from an old friend, the writer Richard Mabey. He encouraged me to write to the Master (application being something of a mystery …he had held the Fellowship in 2015). So, I did. In 2016 I received an e mail from Emmanuel informing me that “The Committee had resolved in my favour” …. very Cambridge … and I joined Emmanuel in 2017 for the Easter term. The term fled past but was an immensely satisfying time. The practical benefits were obvious; the opportunity to read and write without distraction from work and home, to stay up late or skip lunch if engrossed in a paper or book, and essentially have no obligations beyond the task one has set oneself. The other benefits though far outweighed these. The gardens in spring and the ancient Plane Tree, the exceptionally friendly and supportive Fellows, staff and students, and of course the opportunities for engagement with researchers and others of direct relevance to the future of forests and biodiversity. I was really fortunate in being hosted in Cambridge not just by Emmanuel College but by the Conservation Science Group in the David Attenborough Building.


Working as Head of Environment for Forestry England, the land management arm responsible for Forestry Commission forests and woodlands across England, was a huge and full-time job …. from beavers and martens to forest soils and fungi, forest certification, the impact of tree diseases, via the conservation of rare and beautiful species of all manner of plants and animals to the intricacies of deer and venison management. Working with so much expertise left one with a tremendous insight into a whole raft of land management issues and challenges…but virtually no time to read, write or think. Given the tremendous privilege of working with so much expertise, over the whole of the country and over so many years, I was looking for an opportunity to take time out from the fascinating but furious whirl of work and catch up with the academic research into the pressing issue of “forest resilience”; the capacity of our woods and forests to cope with and recover from the twin challenges of rapid climate change and the spread of new and often devastating pests and diseases. The latter were arriving in ever increasing numbers as a result of the globalisation of trade, welcomed into our forests of limited species diversity and stressed by environmental challenges such as drought and warming winters. Bringing together academic insight and the practical experience of so many skilled forestry and conservation colleagues seemed like an important task, and a suitable way to acknowledge both their support, and the rich array of opportunities I had been blessed with throughout a career working in nature conservation and forestry.


Since my time with Emmanuel I have retired from the Forestry Commission, freeing up time for many other projects. I have a book to write (which seemed like such a good idea at the time), I teach and lecture on conservation and forest ecology issues, continue to support several rewilding projects across the country, and, with a team of others, continue to hold the Field Studies Council course on Woodland Ecology & History at Flatford Mill in Essex, run for many years by the late Prof. Oliver Rackham. And in a most exciting development I support my wife Alison in her work to support the farmers and landowners of West Hampshire in their ambitions to revitalise the wildlife and ecology of both their farmland and the River Test.


The work undertaken at Emmanuel led directly to the publication of a quartet of four papers in the Quarterly Journal of Forestry* on the nature and importance of forest resilience and the policy challenges that we now have to tackle, with growing urgency, to embrace resilience measures to sustain the role of our forests as “Natural Capital Assets”.  The first of many key discussions on forest resilience was held at Emmanuel, with a daylong workshop held for Forestry Commission staff in the spring of 2018. The workshop members were welcomed by Sarah Bendall, Development Director at Emmanuel, with words taken directly from the Founder, Walter Mildmay. On being asked about the establishment of the College by Queen Elizabeth I he responded using the oak as a metaphor:

“I have set an acorn, which when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof"

What could have been more appropriate? We hope, Sarah and I and indeed the Master Dame Fiona, that the relationship now established between the College and the future our forests can be sustained into the future.


Jonathan Spencer MBE (2017)

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