Is Britain becoming deforested?

By Michael Smith (Veshengro), RFA

Latest national tree planting figures show a continuing decrease in the rate of woodland creation, whilst trees and woods are being lost across the UK

Tree planting figures released by the Forestry Commission show the rate of woodland creation in the UK continues to fall despite recent calls for increasing woodland cover from within and outside government. From more than 12,000 ha of new planting in 2004, levels had halved to less than 6,000 ha last year and have fallen further to 5,000 ha in the last planting season.

It should be evident to all but the most blind that the UK has been losing and is losing woodlands and hedgerows and hedgerow trees at a rate of knots with little if any replacement.

Responding to the announcement by the Forestry Commission, Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, the UK's leading woodland conservation charity which is now encouraging planting on other people's land, said: "These figures are truly worrying, but should be seen as a clarion call to us all to reverse the downward trend as a matter of urgency.

“Woods and trees are not a luxury but essential for our future quality of life. They are a key component in delivering a wide range of environmental benefits, such as carbon storage, air quality control, shade and shelter, surface flood water management and soil conservation, which are all the more pressing if we are to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

“They also provide vital habitat for some of Britain’s most important wildlife, produce home-grown timber and wood fuel, have a proven ability to alleviate human mental stress and specific physical health problems and enhance our landscape.

“Trees are in many ways a highly cost effective way of tackling some of the major policy challenges of this government. This is why the Trust's pre-election manifesto called for a doubling of native woodland cover in the UK over the next 50 years.”

At the election the Conservative manifesto called for a national tree planting campaign – reiterated in the coalition agreement – and also highlighted the need to create green spaces and 'plant many more trees'. The Liberal Democrats on their own went even further calling for a doubling of woodland cover.

The benefits of woodland creation already feature in the UK's Low Carbon Transition Plan published last summer and the 2009 ‘Read Report’ on the role of UK forests in combating climate change. Most recently, under Defra's Climate Change Plan a designated Woodland Carbon Task Force will work out how to encourage large scale private sector investment in woodland planting.

The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have both made far-reaching commitments to increase woodland cover.

The UK is already one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with half the European average for tree cover.

Referring to the pressures on currently forested areas, Sue Holden continued: "We fully support the Forestry Commission's policy on restoration of open habitats and the restructuring of plantations, but are concerned that with new planting rates so low the net result may be a loss of woodland cover in the UK, at a time when increasing it is essential. The Government's own figures show a loss of over 9,000 ha of woodland between 1999 and 2008 for England alone which may well be an underestimate.

"There is an urgent need to compensate for these losses with large scale woodland creation elsewhere, and we are doing our bit by supporting the planting of native woods and trees through innovative schemes such as MOREwoods ( and through partnerships with companies, schools and communities.

"We want to help government achieve its ambitious plans, but we need to see real commitment to support woodland creation."

Meanwhile there is evidence of significant loss of trees outside woods in hedgerows and fields, as old trees die or are felled for safety reasons, but not replaced. Forestry Commission research has shown that between 1980 and 1997 England suffered a 64% decline in individual trees.

Planting and growing trees and woodlands is one of the best ways of averting the impact of CO2 on climate change but there are many who seem to not understand this and do not appear to be getting the message.

There is a lot of conflicting material out there, sometimes claiming that only old trees store carbon. In fact it is the growing tree, the young tree in his most vigorous growth period, that absorbs most carbon as it is a prerequisite for the tree's growth.

The equation is, basically, the more trees, growing trees, more carbon is being absorbed and stored by them. Old trees, in fact, as they start to slowly decay while standing, release carbon back into the atmosphere.

It is for this very reason that forestry, managed forest and woodland use, with using trees for the many different purposes when trees have reached their proper commercial maturity and then re-afforesting, that is to say replacing the trees felled, three for one, as used to be the good practice, is actually good for the planet.

We need trees and woodlands and we need well managed woods and forests for the good of the country and the good of the Planet.

© 2010