Biking in Grizedale forest, Ambleside, UK
The forestry sector has an incredible opportunity to help combat climate change, improve biodiversity and expand public access. But a new approach is needed in key areas to unlock the land and finance necessary to meet the government's commitment to increase woodland cover across the UK from 13% to 17% by 2050.
In the year to 31 March 2021, only 13,500ha of new planting was completed across the UK, and just 2,180ha in England. To reach government targets, therefore, planting will need to take place at a scale not seen for decades. Woodland expansion has not exceeded 20,000ha a year since the 1980s, peaking in 1989 with more than 30,000ha planted.
Although some people argue the national targets can be met through myriad small planting schemes, it is our view at John Clegg & Co, as forestry and woodland specialists, that there will need to be a mixture of small- and large-scale projects.
But we need an honest discussion if we are to overcome the barriers to large-scale tree planting. The reality is that financial capital is neither lacking nor difficult to raise for large-scale, well-designed commercial forestry projects. Finance is also readily available for broadleaf woodland creation, in the form of grants and by selling carbon credits.
The main barrier to future woodland creation is the availability of land for purchase and planting. There is a range of complex reasons that limited land is available for new woodland – a combination of landowners' concerns about a permanent use, uncertainty around agricultural regulation and support following Brexit, some public perception of softwood plantations having a negative visual impact on the landscape, and the need for wildlife protection.
Regulation is, of course, needed to ensure that woodland creation is sensitive, but processes could be improved. For example, substantial investment in wildlife constraint mapping is needed. These maps show where wildlife species need protection so afforestation efforts can be guided away from the most sensitive sites and towards those where there is a 'presumption in favour' of planting. Some work is being done to map breeding bird habitats to enable some pre-assessment of sites, but significant improvements are required if woodland is to increase. The work involves the Forestry Commission, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Natural England and others, who are developing maps to help guide woodland expansion away from sites which are important breeding habitats.
Currently, potential land-use conflicts are dealt with through long, slow, detailed consultations on a site-by-site basis. But coupled with uncertain outcomes this makes it difficult to assess investment risk properly, and the timescales involved are incompatible with the usual open-market purchase process.
We are pleased that the England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 recognises this problem, suggesting that there should be new mapping products and spatial data sets so land managers are clearer about opportunities for woodland establishment.
The goal could be to produce something similar to the Technical Advice Notice 8: Planning for Renewable Energy published by the Welsh Government in 2005, which identified areas most appropriate for large-scale wind farm development.
Alongside developments in pre-screening, consideration needs to be given to how the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process could be improved. At present, the need for an EIA depends on the sensitivity of the type of land involved and the scale of the planting.
However, for afforestation projects of more than 5ha an EIA is required unless it is a low-risk area, where different rules apply. The process can take years. Although regulation is essential to protect the environment, if ways can be found to streamline EIAs to make them quicker and less costly it would remove a significant barrier to increased planting.
One possibility for sites away from sensitive areas might be to ease some of the EIA requirements until a threshold percentage of the land area under tree coverage is reached, with criteria becoming more stringent as the percentage of woodland increases to maintain a balance with wildlife needs.
While there is generally strong public support for the principle of tree planting, some of this enthusiasm diminishes when it comes to larger-scale schemes.
We need a national conversation about land-use priorities and the need for large-scale landscape change if we are to meet the challenges of the coming decades in terms of food production, energy, wildlife, timber and carbon sequestration in our countryside
A publicity campaign that raises people's awareness of UK reliance on imported timber, alongside the associated traceability and sustainability issues, might help to improve the perception of softwood plantations, for instance, by showing how important it is to expand production.
The UK is second only to China as an importer of timber. Expanding commercial forestry planting is an opportunity to reduce our dependence on imports and cut the carbon footprint of building materials, demand for which is at unprecedented levels. The planting, maintenance and harvesting of woodland can also create sustainable long-term employment in remote rural areas.
Ultimately, we need to win hearts and minds to accept that changes to our landscapes are required to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. But what these changes might look like can be difficult to comprehend.
So we need to offer an attractive and engaging vision of a more wooded landscape in areas of the UK that are currently treeless, and engage with people to discuss how that could enable a more diverse economy and ecology. A visualisation exercise would enable landowners and stakeholders to better understand that changes to our landscapes will be gradual, and not as dramatic as they might think.
We have several good examples from around the country, in the form of community forests and national forests, that suggest how a future wooded landscape might look. There are also wonderful examples of multi-purpose forests such as Forestry England's Grizedale in the Lake District, producing timber, providing wildlife habitats, and attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year.
The stakes are high when it comes to climate change, and inaction will mean there are huge consequences for future generations. The economic and political context has never been more favourable to expand woodland of all types. The financial capital is also available for the right kind of planting project. However, practical changes must be made if we are to overcome the barriers that stand in our way.