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The England Tree Strategy – a new start?

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link, reports on the recent Link webinar on the England Tree Strategy.

July 2020

When it comes to woodland cover, England has long been scantily clad.

The percentage of England’s land covered by woodland has been stuck at 10% for decades, compared to 15% for Wales, 18% for Scotland and 31% for France. Commitment to changing this has been somewhat lacking; the underwhelming target of increasing English cover by 2% by 2060 was adopted in 2013 and subsequent progress towards delivering on it has been sluggish.

This lack of progress came under the spotlight in the 2019 General Election, with all parties committing to large increases in tree planting. The Conservative Manifesto pledge, to plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year, is now being taken forward – with an England Tree Strategy consultation launched last month to invite views on delivery of the pledge within England.

Link members have huge experience in woodland creation and management, and we were pleased to hold an online webinar this week to feed this experience and expertise into the consideration of the Strategy. Our expert panel discussed tree planting opportunities and challenges in depth, along with a range of questions about the potential for growth in overall woodland cover.

There was clear consensus on a number of key points that the England Tree Strategy must include if it is to succeed:

A target for England

Historically, UK Governments have looked to Scotland and Wales to deliver the bulk of UK tree planting. Recent funding announcements suggest that this is set to continue, with Scotland and Wales seemingly expected to deliver 80% of UK tree planting by 2024. This would mean that the England Tree Strategy would direct only a very small proportion of the pledged 75,000 acres of trees a year, and leave woodland cover in England largely unchanged. A clear and ambitious target for England is needed to ensure that significant progress on woodland cover is made, and to see all three nations on mainland Britain delivering their fair share of tree planting. Friends of the Earth research suggests that there is suitable land available to double England’s tree cover to 20% without damaging other habitats.

Support for varied forms of woodland cover

Tree programmes in the late 20th century focussed on monoculture forestry planted en-masse in upland areas, which in time delivered only limited environmental benefits. In contrast a variety of woodland offers a variety of benefits, from mature native woodland that excels in sequestering carbon for long periods, to mixed upland planting that can play a crucial role on capturing water and preventing flooding downstream. Natural regeneration (letting land return organically to a wooded state) is especially helpful for biodiversity, allowing nature to ensure that the right tree is growing in the right place. The panel also agreed that the Strategy needed to recognise the importance of trees outside of woodland – trees in streets, gardens and scattered throughought farmland offer multiple benefits.

Understanding of the relationship between woodland and other habitats

Woodland forms a part of England’s landscape, as one of many precious habitats. New woodland cannot be created at the expense of other habitats and extensive mapping work will be required to identify sites for new woodland that do not damage existing ecosystems. New woodland should interact closely with neighbouring habitats, forming part of a wider Nature Recovery network of varied and species rich habitats, all connecting with and complementing each other. Glades and rides should be designed into newly wooded areas, as essential elements of healthy woodland. The Tree Strategy should closely relate to other environmental planning measures, including the peatland strategy, the clean air strategy and environmental land management scheme.

Recognition of the need to preserve and manage the woodland we already have

The woodland England already has is under threat, from unsustainable development, road building and ecological decline. This woodland and the value it provides, especially ancient woodland, cannot just be replaced new trees – in the words of one panel member this would be akin to’ tearing down St Pauls Cathedral and replacing it with fibreglass’. The Tree Strategy must set out a plan for defending existing woodland (and new woodland once it is planted), which must be accepted and owned across Government – particularly by departments whose projects puts woodland at risk. This cross-Government ownership of the Strategy should also be accompanied by proper financing for woodland, and for nature’s wider recovery. The woodland we have also needs to be managed better. Less than 10% of our woods are in good ecological condition, a proportion the Woodland Trust wants to double by 2030. Active management will help increase the health of these woodlands, and all the species that rely on them.

The panel was in agreement that a Tree Strategy that included the above elements had the potential to reverse years of stagnation – and open up a new and flourishing chapter for England’s woodland.

Thank you to Isabella Murfin, Co-Director of the Tree Planting Programme, for joining the panel and stating Defra’s commitment to work with Link members, the wider sector and the public to develop a successful Tree Strategy.

Thank you also to our panel members:

Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust; Jenna Hegarty, Deputy Director for Policy at RSPB; Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts; Jenny Hawley, Policy Manager at Plantlife; Guy Shrubsole, Trees Campaigner at Friends of the Earth; Patrick Begg, Director of Outdoors and Natural Resources at the National Trust

Link will be submitting a formal response to the England Tree Strategy in August.

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead, Wildlife and Countryside Link

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.