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We need a tree strategy for England that delivers for carbon, nature and people

An England Tree Strategy (ETS) is expected to be published for consultation in the coming weeks. It’s a huge opportunity for Defra to show that trees and woods are not just carbon sponges waiting to be planted, but an integral part of the landscape, helping form networks of habitats and making our towns and cities better and more resilient places to live.

May 2020

The England Tree Strategy is being produced at a pivotal time. With the words of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) ringing in its ears, the Government has committed to 30,000ha of new woodland across England between 2020 and 2025. Although far below the CCC’s UK recommendation of 30,000ha a year, this will nonetheless be a significant jump compared with current planting rates. Trees and woods have an equally important role in delivering the flagship 25 Year Environment Plan, with its objectives to protect and enhance biodiversity.

The England Tree Strategy’s success will be judged on how it brings these two processes together. The carbon imperative makes it tempting to concentrate only on big new blocks of fast-growing species. While this approach has a role to play (not least in making us more self-sufficient in timber), public investment needs to respond to the nature crisis too. That should mean a focus on native trees, skilfully integrated into the landscape to offer a win-win of long-term carbon storage and maximised support for biodiversity. In practice, this is easier said than done and the England Tree Strategy will need to set out how emerging processes such as Nature Recovery Networks can be used so that new trees and woods enhance what’s already there, and contribute to mosaics of nature-rich land-use and resilient, functioning ecosystems.

There is a horrible irony that while Government is planning a major investment in new woods and forest, we do so little to look after the wonders we already have. Our finest and most important trees and woods face a daily onslaught of devastating diseases, widespread development pressures and a failure to act on short-sighted decision making of the past.

All of the above problems are well known. We need the England Tree Strategy to signal a renewed commitment to fixing them. For example, to avoid more tree diseases like Ash Dieback, it should confirm tighter import rules and signal an investment in natural regeneration and the domestic nursery sector so all new trees can be certified UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown. The England Tree Strategy must make sure trees are properly protected by the planning system, especially where they are performing an important service like flood risk reduction or supporting leisure and recreation. For new development, local authorities and developers should actively plan major new areas of woodland and green space around our large towns and cities to help make our towns and cities healthier, happier and more resilient places to live. And the thousands of hectares of Ancient Woodland which were replanted with commercial conifers in the 1970s need to be restored before it’s too late.

All of this will cost money at a time public finances are likely to be extremely tight. As the Natural Capital Committee have shown, however, when you stack-up the benefits, trees and woods offer exception value for money.

An England Tree Strategy which expands, connects, restores, and protects our trees and woodlands is a tantalising prospect. The Woodland Trust will be challenging government to develop a strategy that delivers all of this. We will engage our members and supporters across the country and hope to work with others in the conservation sector to help make it a reality.

Andrew Allen, Lead Advocate - Land Use, Woodland Trust

Twitter: @AndrewAllen74 @WoodlandTrust

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