England in danger of ‘lapsing into deforestation,’ says Woodland Trust
England has amongst the lowest woodland cover in Europe, says the Woodland Trust in an interview with PoliticsHome's Aden Simpson, and the Government must improve on the ‘grim’ planting rates published this week or risk deforestation.
The Government’s Forestry Commission has missed its trees in the ground target by 86% - the worst year in a generation says the Woodland Trust, signalling a growing disconnect between rhetoric and action.
England already has amongst the lowest levels of woodland cover in Europe, with only 10% compared to an EU average of 38%. Thanks to a growing body of research into the inherent benefits of forestation, the Government’s Trees and Woodland Strategy commits to increasing this cover to 12% by 2060.
To do so requires an average planting rate of 5,000 hectares each year, yet in the last year, the Woodland Trust can reveal that only 700 hectares, or 14% of target, have been planted.
“These figures are pretty grim to say the least,” said James Cooper, head of government affairs at the Woodland Trust. “It is unfortunately a downward trend, and this is by far the worst year for a generation.
“It’s been consistently lower than 5,000 a year since 2006, and even by comparison with last year when 2,400 hectares were planted, it’s extremely disappointing.”
Numerous studies now show the immense social and economic benefits of trees, Cooper explained, “from helping with water quality, air quality, flood management and public health, notwithstanding the more obvious benefits in terms of the landscape and nature.”
A Woodland Trust-commissioned study carried out by Europe Economics last year, valued UK woodlands at £270bn, in terms of the cumulative social benefits they provide.
Subsequently, the Government has committed to planting 11 million trees in this parliament, and it’s own Natural Capital Committee last year called or an extra 250,000 hectares of planting next to towns and cities “because of the social benefits that would be generated.”
“So there’s a recognition that woods and trees are good for us, and we need to do better,” said Cooper, “But there’s clearly a disconnect between policy commitments and actually making it happen on the ground.”
Cooper believes that simple changes to administrative procedures and incentives could dramatically increase annual woodland creation.
Government funding has already been allocated for half of the 5,000 hectare target, largely to be delivered on private land, while the other half is expected to be funded privately, by people planting for commercial reasons, such as timber.
In terms of the Government-funded half, Cooper explained that a variety of administrative hurdles are preventing landowners from applying.
“Previously you could apply at any point during the year,” said Cooper, “but at present the application window is very tight, which acts as a disincentive.”
A competitive and points-based scheme is also deterring some landowners, as they are faced with considerable paperwork and mapping before they can even apply, “which doesn’t generate much confidence.”
“In terms of the privately funded part of it,” he added, “we think we need to look at new and more innovative ways of funding tree planting, such as paying people to store carbon or to manage land better to alleviate flooding.”
Cooper essentially advocates treating woodland creation schemes as infrastructure projects; including commissioning ‘tree infrastructure’ from private companies with appropriate incentives.
If changes are not made, and planting does not improve soon, he suggests that England is in danger of “lapsing into deforestation.”
“If you combine these dreadful figures with the woodland loss that’s taking place - through development and other issues like tree diseases - it may be the case that we’re losing more than we’re planting in this country, which would make deforestation a possibility.”
“Rightly, the Government is looking to play a leading role on this internationally, to address deforestation overseas,” he went on, “but we should also be making sure our own house is order.”
The Woodland Trust is calling for the Government to “adopt a fresh approach” to the issue when it publishes its 25 year plan for the environment this summer: “to really make a concerted attempt to drive up woodland creation, to better protect what we have, and to look at new ways of bringing in private sector funding, that can actually make things happen on the ground.”
“This will be the main vehicle for change,” he asserted. “But it also needs to inspire the public.
“As well as addressing the administrative problems, and showing innovations in funding, we need some eye-catching big woodland projects, like a new national forest delivered with participants such as the Woodland Trust, that would bring this 25 year plan to life and show that the Government is serious about driving up planting rates.”