Deforestation a distinct possibility in parts of the UK
New statistics from the Forestry Commission released today show tree planting rates in sharp decline and, the Woodland Trust believes, belie a greater danger given that there is still no systematic annual recording of woodland losses.
In England, just 2,400 hectares of new woodland was planted in the 2014-15 planting season – a decrease of 900ha on the 2013-14 figure of 3,300ha and even further from the desired 5,000ha.
In Scotland, 7,600ha was planted, 700ha less than last year and again, far short of the 10,000ha target. In Wales just 100ha was planted – 800ha less than last year’s figure and short of the 5,000ha target. And in Northern Ireland where the aspiration is to double woodland cover, planting reached just 200ha.
Taking potential losses into account would show even lower net figures for any increase in woodland cover and in some countries may even show a decline.
Large areas of larch woods, some of which are plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) and critically important for wildlife, have been felled under Statutory Plant Health Notices (SPHN) as a result of a disease known as Phytophthora ramorum. Unlike the majority of areas felled, which are granted permission on condition that the area is restocked, there is no legal requirement for woodland to be restocked after felling under a SPHN.
For instance, around 3,300 hectares of woodland was issued with a SPHN in Wales in 2013-14, where the new planting figures for this year are just 100 hectares. While many woodland owners will replant or encourage natural regeneration, there is no compulsion to do so.
Trees outside woods are not accounted for in the statistics, but in many landscapes make up 30 per cent or more of the tree canopy. Ash trees, currently threaten by ash dieback, are a large component of that.
Sources of loss could include:
- Loss of forests area as a result of tree pests and disease – in particular Phytophthora impacts on larch in the South West and Wales. There is no obligation to restock following felling as a result of a statutory plant health notice.
- Forest redesign – whilst redesign of forest areas is a good thing in terms of the landscape, it can result in loss of forest area (particularly of conifer forest).
- Loss to development – the Trust currently has 500 ancient woods under threat on its records.
- Loss as a result of overgrazing by deer particularly in the uplands.
Woodland Trust Director of Conservation, Austin Brady, said: “Trees, woods and forests are vital for wildlife, the environment and for a productive home grown timber industry but these figures fall well short of what’s needed on all fronts. And today’s report belies an even greater danger than the alarmingly low tree planting rates. In failing to take full account of woodland losses that we know are occurring, or to consider trees outside of woodland, these statistics only tell part of the story.
“With threats to our natural environment posed by climate change, increasing pests and diseases and changing weather patterns leading to droughts and flooding , there is an urgent need to develop a landscape with greater resilience.
“The Government’s manifesto committed to taking up the Natural Capital Committee’s recommendation for a 25-year recovery plan for nature in England. Increasing tree and woodland cover must be a priority within this plan to improve quality of life while delivering value for money.”
The Natural Capital Committee recently highlighted the economic and environmental importance of trees and woodland, and showed the benefit of planting 250,000ha of new woodland close to people. This, it stated, would deliver net societal benefits above £500m per year.
Trees play a vital role in delivering an ecologically resilient landscape and evidence shows that tree planting can have major beneficial outcomes for landowners in terms of producing timber and wood fuel, preventing soil erosion and flooding, and providing shelter and shade for crops and livestock. Other benefits include improving water quality and quantity, better air quality, general mental and physical wellbeing, lessening surface water flooding in towns and cities, and creating opportunities for wildlife.