The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees

State of the UK's Forests Woods and Trees report
State of the UK's Forests Woods and Trees report. Click to download from the Woodland Trust website

Tommorow a major report will be released: The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees: Perspectives from the forestry and woodland sector. It marks the International Year of Forests in 2011. The report was featured in the Independent Newspaper today.

The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees report was led by the Woodland Trust and written in collaboration with 19 other organisations across the forestry sector, including my own involvement on behalf of the Sylva Foundation. I wrote two perspective pieces:

  • Reviving a wood culture in the UK
  • Trees fit for the future

The report presents important evidence concerning the UK’s tree and forest resources. The contributing organisations hold, and indeed presented during the drafting of the report, many diverse viewpoints. The lead authors Sian Atkinson and Mike Townsend of the Woodland Trust did an excellent job in bringing these together and providing balanced viewpoints, explaining any differences in opinion where evident. It was heartening in fact to find that there was so much in common in the viewpoints of these 19 leading organisations, and the findings are an important contribution to the discussions still ongoing regarding the future of the Public Forest Estate in England (read more).

The report consists of six chapters, making the following key points:

1.    Forest Cover in the UK

  • The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with 13 per cent woodland cover compared to around 37 per cent for European Union countries, and global forest cover of around 30 per cent.
  • This has, however, increased from a low point of around 5 per cent a century ago. The majority of UK woodland is therefore relatively recent plantation. Ancient woodland covers 2.3 per cent of land area.
  • Trees outside woodland are an important element of the UK’s landscape, with an estimated 123 million in Britain. The UK is particularly rich in ancient and veteran trees.
  • Government is committed to maintaining total forest cover in the UK under international agreements. Recording forest loss is an issue: while new planting is accounted for in statistics, there is no comprehensive monitoring of forest loss, for example to development.

2.    Governance

  • Almost 30 per cent of UK woodland is managed  by the state bodies, Forestry Commission in Britain and Forest Service Northern Ireland. The majority of the remainder is owned by individuals or businesses.
  • Very few communities directly own or manage woodland, compared to some other European countries, but the number is growing, especially in Scotland, and there is increasing pressure for the public to have a stake in the UK’s forests. Ownership may not always be the issue: people may simply want to know regulation is fit for purpose to enable forests to deliver everything we require from them and to feel they have a genuine part in decision-making.
  • Recent studies in England have shown a shift from farmers owning woods towards those interested in rural lifestyles. In 2000, 39 per cent of farms sold in Britain were bought by non-farmers.

3.    Productivity and sustainable forest management

  • The UK is the third largest net importer of forest products in the world, behind China and Japan. It currently imports most of its wood and wood products, and exports very little.
  • Production of softwood is likely to peak in the next five to ten years, as the forests planted in the 20th century mature, and then to decline again. There is potential to increase production of hardwoods, as many broadleaved woods are not currently managed for wood production, but there are barriers: many of these woods are small, ownership is fragmented, and supply chains are not well-developed. Wood fuel is the main potential product.
  • At the same time, demand for wood is likely to increase significantly in the UK in future, particularly for bio energy. This is seen as  both an opportunity, to stimulate growth in forestry and related industries, and a threat, with new sectors such as bio energy competing with traditional markets for wood fibre.
  • To make the most of the opportunity it is essential good standards of sustainable management are maintained. There may also be a need to address skills shortages within the sector.

4.    Biodiversity

  • Forests, woods and trees are important for biodiversity: around a quarter of priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan are associated with woodland habitats.
  • UK Government has international commitments on biodiversity, expressed through the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Biodiversity strategy is devolved, and following recent reviews at international level, country strategies are under review.
  • Targets to maintain, restore and protect priority woodland habitats are generally not being met. In some cases, baseline information and monitoring is inadequate to assess whether they are or not.
  • There are multiple challenges, from climate change and invasive species to changes in land use both within and outside woods. Monitoring shows changes in the ecological composition of woods that reflects this. Some species are increasing, but others show worrying declines.

5.    Ecosystem services

  • The concept of “ecosystem services” is increasingly gaining currency. It opens up avenues for placing value, including financial value, on the benefits provided by forests, woods and trees.
  • Examples include improving air and water quality, helping to manage flooding, carbon sequestration, reducing urban heat island effect, thus helping adaptation to climate change; provision of timber, fuel and non-wood products such as fungi, fruit or nuts; places for recreation that also improve health and wellbeing.
  • Ecosystem service benefits of forests, woods and trees are a strong rationale for increasing tree cover. The value of UK woodland for public access benefits alone is estimated to be £447 million a year, yet only 15 per cent of people have easy access to a wood of two hectares within 500m of home.

6.    Resilience

  • Forests, woods and trees face environmental change at an unprecedented scale. Challenges include climate change, increasing  pests and diseases, pollution, invasive species, inappropriate levels of grazing, and land-use change. There is clear evidence climate change is affecting aspects of the composition and function of woodland. Diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum and Acute Oak Decline are a serious threat to productivity and biodiversity of trees, woods and forests.
  • Predicting the effects of single driver of change is complex, but the problem is compounded by the fact that there are multiple drivers, and these also interact with one another. Yet because of the long timescales involved in tree and forest growth, we need to find the most appropriate action now to enable them to survive and continue to deliver maximum benefits in future.
  • It is broadly accepted that building resilience will require action within woods, and across whole landscapes, to reverse fragmentation, increase diversity, and reduce stresses.

Summary of the report

Much evidence exists, and some of the policy is in place to support what is needed: an expansion of the forest resource, protection and restoration of its most valuable natural assets, re-invigoration of the economic woodland and forest sector, delivery of environmental and social benefits, and delivery of resilient, functional landscapes. The biggest challenge is to drive this policy into practice.

The report points to a number of needs to achieve the above:

  • the need to recognise and enhance the diversity in form, function, and use of our woods.
  • the need for joined-up thinking with supportive government policies that embed forests, woods and trees and enable collaboration within the sector.
  • the need for public support and an awareness of the benefits of woodland and why its protection and expansion is essential. People’s connection with forests, exemplified by the strong emotional reaction to the threat of losing the public forest estate earlier in 2011 needs to be deepened to a real understanding of and support for forests, woods and trees as working landscapes and as crucial habitats for wildlife.

Download the report from the Woodland Trust website

Gabriel Hemery


Contributing organisations to the State of UK’s Forests, Woods & Trees: Perspectives from the forestry and woodland sector

  • Ancient Tree Forum
  • Bat Conservation Trust
  • Coed Cymru
  • Community Woodland Association
  • Confor
  • Campaign for National Parks
  • Country Land and Business Association
  • Forest Policy Group
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Institute of Chartered Foresters
  • National Forest
  • Reforesting Scotland
  • Royal Forestry Society
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust
  • Small Woods Association
  • Sylva Foundation
  • UKWAS
  • Wildlife Trusts
  • Woodland Trust
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