New planting rates have plummeted to an all-time low

Woodland cover across the UK is just 13%. Without urgent action our woods and trees will continue to disappear.

We are hopefully all aware of how vital trees and woods are for life, for health, for wildlife and for our future. That’s why it’s ever more disappointing to see new planting rates at an all-time low. Last year, the Government missed its planting targets in England by a whopping 86%, continuing a drastic decline in new woodland planting.

The figures released here (page 11) show only 700 ha of woodland was planted in England last year, far below the Government and Forestry Commission (FC) aim of 5000ha.  In comparison, the previous year looks better, with 2,400ha planted in 2014-2015. Yet this too was disappointing, being the result of a previous steady decline in planting rates in England since 2006.

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Woodland cover in England stands at just 10 per cent. The surviving ancient and native woods of England are important as a rich stronghold of biodiversity. Valuable in their own right and also as crucial refugia within which native wildlife survives and hopefully can spread across the countryside if suitable habitat networks and non-hostile land uses are accessible. The Government’s aspiration is to work with land owners, countryside groups and the forestry sector to achieve 12% woodland cover by 2060.  This means an average planting rate of 5000 ha a year. 

The severe drop in these figures is all the more shocking against the backdrop of the growing evidence of the importance and value of trees and woods in tackling air pollution, improving water quality and offering scope to deliver natural flood management, not to mention what they offer for wildlife and their productive potential for the rural economy.

Something is drastically wrong with the way woodland planting is being supported across the various government departments that share responsibility for trees and woods and all that tghey can deliver for society and the environment. The number and variety of native trees being planted must increase if we are to have any hope of heading off serious environmental degradation and combat the impact of pests and diseases which threaten millions of trees.  

On top of the poor planting rates, we also suffer from continued woodland losses – from a variety of causes. Most people are surprised to learn that our surviving irreplaceable ancient woodlands enjoy little protection under the planning system. The net result, across England as a whole, means we are highly likely to be entering a phase of deforestation, with areas of woodland being felled or destroyed and not replaced or replanted.

Despite repeated requests; there is little government effort to accurately quantify the cumulative losses of woodland resulting from built development, new infrastructure, tree disease and intensification of land use. Whilst the government is happy to lend its voice to overseas development projects to help arrest deforestation in other people’s forests, our own woodland and forest heritage continues on a slow spiral of loss and destruction.

The latest Natural Capital Committee report, by the Government’s own independent advisory body, found planting an extra 250,000 ha of new woods near towns and cities could generate in excess of £500 million in benefits for society.   A 2015 report for the Woodland Trust put the total value of UK woodlands at around £270 billion.

Poor planting figures are partly due to landowners being put off by complexity in the grants and regulatory frameworks that apply. This is compounded by regular changes to these EU-backed agri-environment schemes that feed a fear of disallowance or reclaims, leaving landowners reluctant to embrace trees and woods as part of their sustainable land use plans. More flexible programmes are needed to grant aid both smaller and larger areas of woodland creation and to attract a wider range of landowners willing to plant. 

We hope the Government’s forthcoming framework for its 25 year plan for the environment will herald a fresh approach, and offer genuinely new and practical solutions to address these issues. Government cannot crack these issues alone, but some leadership is required. We recognise that new and innovative approaches to funding positive land use change must be developed in a collaborative way – and freed from the straight-jacket of the Common Agricultural Policy the timing couldn’t be better.

The Woodland Trust is committed to spearheading a project to plant 64 million new native trees over the next decade in woods, hedges and community schemes right across the country – one for every person in the UK. We hope politicians, communities, schools and individuals across the country can help us to realise this ambition and together we can help secure a brighter future for the Nation’s woods and trees.

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