Twitter LinkedIn

Native trees need to be at the heart of woodland expansion

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead at Wildlife & Countryside Link, marks National Trees Week with a piece celebrating the nature and climate benefits provided by native tree species.

December 2021

In the England Tree Action Plan 2021, the Government committed to including a long-term tree target in the upcoming consultation on Environment Act targets (expected for early 2022). This welcome commitment provides an opportunity to move England’s woodland cover from the 10% it has been stuck at for over a decade, and closer to the 17-19% woodland coverage that the Climate Change Committee suggests will be necessary by 2050.

Getting the long-term tree target and its implementation right, and ensuring it contributes as part of a wider framework of Environment Act targets to recover nature across the board, is essential. A crucial factor in the success of the target will be the scale of native* woods and trees it delivers.

More native trees mean faster progress towards nature’s recovery

Woodland habitats in England are the product of thousands of years of evolution, with the native species they contain being highly adapted to existence alongside each other. As a result of these intertwined relationships, built up over millennia, many native woodland species require native woodland habitats in order to thrive.

Some native species can live in non-native woodland habitats (for example red squirrels can often be found in norway spruce woodlands) but overall biodiversity tends to be higher in woodland habitats comprised of mainly native trees that are in good condition. As the data from the Woodland Trust’s ‘State of Trees 2021 report makes clear: ‘‘high species richness clearly corresponds with regions that have expansive ancient woodland cover and landscapes with high broadleaved cover more generally, which will be predominantly native tree species.’’ 

In the words of Natural England Chair Tony Juniper ‘‘all types of woodland have value, but I believe that those dominated by native broadleaved species generally provide the most benefit for wildlife and people. Native woodlands support a quarter of the UK’s priority species and those with a diversity of tree species are more resilient to disease.’’

On the other side of the coin, it is important to note the environmental damage caused by the historic mass planting of mainly non-native conifers in the post war era, and the peatland and ancient woodland lost to make way for this planting. Restoration work to undo this damage is now underway, alongside work to make new non-native coniferous planting better for wildlife.

The role of tree cover location, condition and type in aiding wider species recovery is highly relevant as the Government considers how best to meet its headline Environment Act target of halting the decline in species abundance by 2030. 41% of native species have declined since 1971. The expansion of native priority habitats, including native tree habitats, is essential to enable their recovery.

By ensuring that the right native tree is grown in the right place – and that it is well managed as it grows there - large areas of new, highly biodiverse, woodland can be created as part of a joined-up system of priority habitats for native wildlife species to recover in.

Native trees offer significant climate benefits

A high percentage of native tree expansion could be delivered through natural regeneration, where woodland is allowed to grow naturally from fallen seeds, which could deliver tangible climate resilience benefits. The majority of native tree species hold a high percentage of genetic diversity. Natural regeneration of native trees results in the creation of woodland habitats with a dynamic age-structure and healthy genetic variation. The trees which grow to maturity in such naturally regenerated woodland will be best suited to their local micro-climatic conditions, such as soil type, water availability, and sunlight, making them more resilient to external disease threats and climate change, as well as offering significant biodiversity benefits.

Recent Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain research suggests that a million acres of new native trees could be delivered in England from natural regeneration alone, boosting England’s woodland cover by a third.

More native woodland can also help connect other native habitats together, creating a connected landscape with varied options for shelter and food, which will help wildlife species adapt to a changing climate.

Allowing trees to flourish over a prolonged time period also offers carbon capture advantages. Letting trees live longer means that they can store carbon for longer. The older the tree is allowed to get, the more carbon that can be stored. It is for these reasons that ancient and long-established woodlands (dominated by native tree species) hold 36% of carbon stored by UK woodland, even though they make up only 25% of all woodland.

Native trees in woodland created by natural regeneration, effectively managed to allow maturing over many decades, will be well-equipped to weather climate change impacts, will help wildlife species adapt to climate change and will sequester significant quantities of carbon for prolonged periods of time.

Specifying a native minimum percentage in the Environment Act targets consultation

The England Tree Action Plan recognises the importance of native tree species and contains an aspiration to '‘see current planting trends for majority native broadleaf woodlands continue, given the additional benefits they provide for nature and people.''

The long-term tree target within the Environment Act targets consultation process offers an opportunity to further this approach. 

A desirable minimum percentage of native trees in publicly funded new woodland should be specified within the Environment Act targets consultation process next year. This should broadly reflect recent planting trends, which have seen broadleaf native species forming the bulk of new woodland, rather than the 5% minimum for native species currently contained in the UK Forestry Standard

An increase in native woodland can take place alongside an increase in the level of timber producing plantations in the UK. There is room for both – lots of trees can come on top of a native minimum in Government-funded woodland. 

Specifying a minimum native percentage in new publicly funded woodland in  Environment Act target consultations next year would be to the benefit of nature and climate alike. Right tree, right place, right time.

Matt Browne is Advocacy Lead at Wildlife & Countryside Link 

*The Woodland Trust define native trees as those that colonised the land mass of the UK after the glaciers melted following the last Ice Age and before Britain was disconnected from mainland Europe, a period roughly between 9,700 BCE and 6,500 BCE.

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