Britain’s forests are in poor condition.
Despite the widely held view that forests are important for wildlife and biodiversity, help combat the climate emergency by sequestering carbon, and benefit people’s health and well-being, the vast majority of native forests of Great Britain are not healthy.
In fact, only 7% are in good ecological condition, according to the Woodland Trust.
According to the charity that published a report on the state of Britain’s woodlands last year.
So what’s wrong?
Some of the problems date back to the World Wars, when there was a lot of forest clearing, according to Karen Hornigold, conservation evidence adviser at the Woodland Trust.
After World War II, Britain was left with historically low levels of tree cover, with just 6% tree cover, she said.
Today, that percentage has roughly doubled to 13%, but remains one of the lowest percentages in Europe, where the average is closer to 40%.
This means that around half of Britain’s woodlands are relatively new and similar in age and structure as they have been planted or regenerated in recent decades.
At the same time, our management of woods to heat our homes or create fences has diminished, so we are not thinning our woods or selectively felling trees. The result is that many trees are the same height and little light is able to penetrate the canopy and reach the woodland floor, which harms diversity, Dr Hornigold said.
The UK has also seen an unprecedented increase in our deer populations, which eat tree regrowth and flowers in the woodland understory, leading to further reduction in species diversity and stunting, a she added.
“We need this new growth to happen to have different ages and levels of tree height,” she said.
The development is also threatening ancient forests, which now make up just 2.5% of the UK’s area, according to the charity.
“Our ancient forests are our most precious terrestrial habitats,” said Dr Hornigold. “They’re so diverse because they’ve been around for centuries.”
New pests and diseases are also increasing, likely from imported plants, while pollution is also damaging our forests, the trust says.
Ash dieback threatens millions of ash trees, leading to local extinctions of ash-dependent wildlife, the report said. Almost all woodland in the UK exceeds thresholds for nitrogen pollution, which wipes out lichens and other species, causing ecosystems to decline. According to the report, nitrogen-tolerant grasses wipe out woodland flowers such as violets and heather.
What can be done?
First, Britain can expand its forest cover.
The government has pledged to plant at least 7,500 hectares of trees a year across England by 2025, while the UK-wide target is to plant 30,000 hectares a year in the same deadline.
Last month the National Audit Office said planting of new trees in England in 2021-22 is expected to be ‘far below’ what the government has set itself, making the 2025 target all the more more difficult.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the National Audit Office report recognized the department had worked at pace in difficult circumstances to meet this challenge.
“But we are under no illusions that there is more to do,” Mr Eustice said in a statement. “That’s why we’re going to triple the number of trees planted by the end of this parliament, backed by over £500million.”
Stephen Coffey, chief forester at Heart of England Forest, which aims to help reverse centuries of forest decline and create and conserve hardwood forest in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, said the “sad fact” is that “we just aren’t doing enough as a country”. to protect, restore and develop our forests – and that must change.
Mr Coffey said the Heart of England Forest’s tree planting work focuses entirely on native tree species such as English and sessile oak, birch, hazel and hornbeam and its aim is to “plant and nurture 30,000 acres of these species – connecting, joining and buffering the isolated fragments – to create a forest that looks, smells and feels like the natural English forests we have lost”.
Planting trees on this scale creates a huge carbon sink, helping to alleviate the climate crisis and mitigate flooding, according to the charity. The wood also includes grassland, wetlands and heathland, as well as 600 acres of mature and ancient woodland.
The Woodland Trust agrees that native forests should be an important part of forest expansion, improving existing woodlands to help nature recover.
“We advocate the planting of native trees, and even more so if there is a possibility that they may be generated naturally from a nearby seed source,” Dr Hornigold said. “It’s important that it’s the right tree in the right place.”
Collecting and tracking evidence needs to be improved, as data helps to observe past trends and track progress towards goals, according to the Woodland Trust.
Finally, he indicates that investments will be necessary to meet the challenges ahead.