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The state of woods and trees

Nick Philips, Head of Conservation Policy at the Woodland Trust, reflects on on the findings from a major new assessment of the UK’s native woods and trees.

April 2021

Despite a tripling of the UK’s woodland cover since the beginning of the last century, over half of the plants and animals which rely on this habitat are in decline. This is just one of the powerful findings from a major new assessment of the UK’s native woods and trees, published by the Woodland Trust.

The report is clear; to support wildlife recovery successfully we need to both rapidly expand tree cover and dramatically improve the condition of existing woodland. Taken alone, neither protecting and improving existing woodland, nor focusing solely on expanding woodland will restore nature - we need both.

The first report of its kind, The State of Woods and Trees draws together a wealth of data and evidence on the condition of woods and trees, their value, and the threats they face. The picture that emerges is of a vital habitat and resource under huge pressure.

The new report requires clear and firm action from policy makers. First and foremost, trees and woods need to be protected and enhanced as part of a wider nature recovery. An immediate and legally-binding ‘State of Nature’ target is essential if the Environment Bill is to halt the declines across our natural world including for trees.

Beneath this, specific changes are needed to land-use planning, farm payments, target setting and monitoring and much else.

Native species must be a major part of planned tree cover expansion

Native trees are best for our wildlife. To deliver for climate and nature, a major part of the planned increase in tree cover must be made up of native tree species in both new woodland and trees outside woods. This will require:

  • Targets for new native woods and trees that combine quality and quantity
  • Funding and landowner advice from the Environmental Land Management Schemes (replacing the Common Agricultural Policy) that support not just new planting, but a diversity of approaches including agroforestry and natural regeneration and colonisation.
  • Woodland expansion planned at the landscape scale to maximise ecological benefits such as buffering and connecting existing woods, and integration with other habitats and land uses.

Protecting existing woodland must be a key part of climate change strategies

While much of the focus is on establishing new woodland to sequester carbon, it is essential to look after the trees we already have to secure the immense carbon reserves they hold. Policy priorities to better protect existing woods must include:

  • Using the land-use planning system to strengthen protection for ancient and long-established woodland – our most carbon-rich woodlands.
  • Better guidance and standards to improve the condition and management of Ancient Woodland.

Use high-quality woods and trees to help create better places to live

Nearly 90% of people in England agree trees, woods and other green space are important for physical and mental health - yet only one-in-six of us has access to a good size wood within walking distance of home. National and local government must enhance and increase tree cover in and around our urban areas, including:

  • Creating new accessible woodlands near to where people live and ensure local communities have a voice in decisions about their local woods and trees.
  • Funding and guidance for local authorities on how to integrate and care for trees in towns and cities including reform and proper funding for the Tree Protection Order system.

Trees need better protection from development pressures and pest and diseases

More action is needed to protect trees and woods from new development, imported diseases and pollution. Nearly 1000 ancient woods have been damaged or destroyed since 1999 and another 1,225 are currently under threat. At least 19 serious new tree pest and diseases have arrived on our shores in recent years including Ash Dieback which is expected to kill the large majority of our ash trees. Meanwhile, nitrogen pollution from agriculture is damaging woodland ecology with over 80% of UK woodland receiving nitrogen above critical thresholds for these habitats. We need to:

  • Ensure reform of land-use planning strengthens the protection given to all trees and woods.
  • Properly resource biosecurity at the border to stop the import of pests and diseases.
  • Commit to making all trees planted with public money UK and Ireland sourced and grown.
  • Support the development of the tree nursery sector.
  • Tackle nitrogen pollution through innovation in
    farming, including much increased use of trees on farms

Trees are an extraordinary resource. The evidence in the UK's Woods and Trees shows clearly the role they play in helping maintain our climate, supporting biodiversity and contributing to our collective quality of life. But it also reveals the threats and pressures they face from disease, development and much else. The upcoming local and mayoral elections are an early opportunity to put woods and trees high on the political agenda to tackle the nature and climate crises and create a brighter future for people and wildlife.

Nick Phillips is Head of Conservation Policy at the Woodland Trust

Follow @WoodlandTrust and @treepolicy

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