Out of the woods

1st May 2020

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  • Biodiversity


Susan Patton

The UK urgently needs to step up tree planting and create woodlands to meet climate targets. Huw Morris reports

Darren Moorcroft believes the picture has never been bleaker. The chief executive of the Woodland Trust says more woods are under threat than at any time in history. Tree planting rates are the lowest in decades. One in 10 wildlife and plant species faces extinction. Diseases and pests threaten millions of native trees.

“We've seen a lot of talk about trees and that is welcome, but we've yet to see the action,“ he says. “We've left ourselves a phenomenal amount to do in a very short space of time. The moment of crisis has come, and action needs to be taken.“

Last year's clarion call by the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) focused minds. It recommended planting more trees and woodlands if the UK is to have any chance of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, setting a target of 17-19% tree cover across the country. This means tree planting on an unprecedented scale. The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with just 13% tree cover compared to the continental average of 37%. The 6% increase envisaged by the CCC equates to around 1.5m hectares of additional woodland.

“We've left ourselves a phenomenal amount to do“

Only 1,420ha of trees were planted in England in the year to March 2019, against a 5,000ha government target. Wales and Northern Ireland planted 500ha and 240ha respectively. Total tree cover is unchanged at 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.

The government is committed to planting 30,000ha of trees a year across the UK by 2025, and its 25-Year Environment Plan aims to increase woodlands to 12% in England by 2060. The CCC admits achieving this “would require significant scaling up across the sector, from research into the most appropriate species to plant across the country, scaling up the nursery sector to grow the saplings, to actual planting on site“.

Forestry Commission forest service director Richard Greenhous outlined eight challenges at a recent Ecosystems Knowledge Network conference, with strong leadership and political support topping the list. This needs to be backed by substantial investment – the government has earmarked a £640m Nature for Climate Fund for tree planting during the next five years – as well as quality trees sourced from a strong nursery sector, and land to plant on, particularly in the face of housing and infrastructure demands. Woodland creation will also need people to collect seeds, nurture stock, and regulate and plant woodland. In addition, the right trees need to be in the right places. All this should be sustained by woodland management, and trees will need protecting from pests.

One key element will be how the new Environmental Land Management Scheme, heralded by the Agriculture Bill currently before Parliament, encourages tree planting by farmers and landowners (see Environmental Land Management Scheme box).

All this leaves Moorcroft issuing a clarion call of his own. “Previous governments have tried to dramatically increase tree planting rates before,“ he says. “In doing so, some of our finest wildlife sites were damaged. We can't afford to make the wrong decisions about how and where we expand tree cover. We don't have time.“

Public good: Environmental Land Management Scheme

The Agriculture Bill aims to provide the legislative framework for replacing support schemes to farmers and landowners following the UK's departure from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. It introduces the concept of 'public money for public goods'.

The government will pay farmers for producing 'public goods' such as better air, water quality and soil, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding, as well as tree planting and woodland creation.

The new Environment Land Management (ELM) scheme is the key mechanism for this, under a three-tier model:

  • Tier 1 focuses on incentivising environmentally sustainable farming and forestry, such as cover crops
  • Tier 2 could be designed to support land managers to deliver locally targeted environmental outcomes
  • Tier 3 intends to focus on delivering landscape scale land-use change projects, such as tree planting.

The test and trial period began in 2018 and is ongoing. It aims to find out how to make the scheme implementable. It is considering issues such as payment by results, reverse auctions, how to value environmental outcomes, the kind of expert advice needed to make the scheme work, and how to foster close cooperation between landowners and farmers. A national pilot will follow, and the government envisages rolling out ELMs between 2024-2027.

“How exactly the concept of 'public money for public goods' will be implemented is therefore still in the test-phase,“ says Judith Tsouvalis, University of Sheffield research fellow in geography.

Boosting tree cover : Woodlands across the UK

In England, the government launched the £50m Woodland Carbon Guarantee last November to encourage farmers and landowners to plant more trees and create woodlands in return for payments as those trees grow. Under the scheme, participants will be offered the option to sell 'woodland carbon units' to the government over 35 years at a guaranteed price set by auction, providing new income for land managers who help compensate for carbon emissions.

Elsewhere, the government supports woodland creation through Countryside Stewardship (CS) grants and the Woodland Carbon Fund (WCF). The Forestry Commission also provides the Woodland Creation Planning Grant for landowners to prepare woodland creation plans, which can then be used to apply for either CS or WCF grants. The CS will support woodland creation until the new ELM is rolled out in late 2024 after three years of pilots.

In March, the Forestry Commission launched the latest round of the Urban Tree Challenge Fund for community and volunteer groups, town councils and individuals to apply for a share of a £10m pot to increase tree numbers in urban areas through small-scale planting projects. The fund aims to support the planting of more than 130,000 trees across England's towns and cities.

The Welsh government has unveiled plans for a national forest, which would see existing woodland joined up with newly planted areas. Under its 'connected ecological network', inspired by the Wales Coast Path, people could walk the entire length of the forest, from one end of the country to the other. However, no official map exists yet. Meetings and events with businesses, landowners and communities are scheduled during the coming months to develop the scheme.

The Scottish government met its annual tree planting target for the first time last year, with 11,200ha. Most of the planting was by the private sector, with around 1,000ha down to the government agency Forestry and Land Scotland. Forests cover about 18.7% of Scotland's land mass, and there is a target to increase that figure to 21% by 2032. Scotland accounts for 84% of all new planting.

Northern Ireland significantly needs to increase tree planting if it is to help meet the UK target. It needs to plant 2,000ha of trees a year to hit an existing target of 12% cover by 2050, according to the Woodland Trust. In 2018/2019, only 240ha were planted.

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

Image credit: iStock

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