The most recent All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPG) meeting took place on 29 September. In its third session to run online since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, the group met to discuss whether wood-producing forests can also deliver for biodiversity. Carolyne Locher reports.

HOST David Lee said that he was looking forward to a mix of organisational perspectives, but first, Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith joined the group with a pre-recorded message: “Confor’s report, ‘Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood’, is a welcome contribution to the discussion on the England Tree Strategy. Clearly, we need to work to improve the quality and diversity of our woodlands, to help support a productive timber market and help tackle the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Also, to remember that planting trees has an important role in managing floods and drought.

“Finally, as we build up our economy, renewed efforts to plant trees and manage our forests are an important part of a green recovery. Forestry provides multiple environmental and social benefits, sustainable products for construction and clean energy.

“Government is committed to expanding and managing woodlands to deliver the widest benefits. Confor’s report proposes some critical points to support this endeavour.

“Working to develop the England Tree Strategy (the consultation closed on September 11), the number of responses reflects the immense value that the general public, key stakeholders and the forestry sector place on trees and woodlands.”

He thanked everyone for their responses: “It is a critical moment to have your voice heard and to help shape the future of trees and woodlands in England. I support Confor’s key message that we need to plant more trees, manage our existing woodlands and use more of our own wood.”

With over 1,800 individual responses and over 16,000 letters, feedback will be reviewed, and the strategy published in the coming months.

APPG chair Ben Lake MP welcomed attendees to the event and said he is looking forward to the England Tree Strategy consultation findings, stressing the need for forestry and wood industries to continue to engage with the policymakers drawing up the future plans.

Forestry Journal: Left to right: Ben Lake MP, Eleanor Harris, Lord Goldsmith.Left to right: Ben Lake MP, Eleanor Harris, Lord Goldsmith.

There was positive news. Scottish planting targets have been raised from 15,000 ha to 18,000 ha for 2024/2025. The Welsh government has committed to a significant funding increase for the Glastir planting schemes (2020/2021). “If England and Northern Ireland follow suit, we can deliver vital benefits for our economy, society and environment across the UK,” he said.

“Today’s focus is the environment. Confor’s report, ‘Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood’, is an analysis of the biodiverse benefits of modern forestry and wood production. The climate emergency and nature crisis go hand in hand. What can modern wood-producing forests do, addressing nature as well as the climate emergency?”

Confor’s chief executive Stuart Goodall said that one of his main frustrations is outdated perceptions of productive forestry: the twentieth-century, government-driven dash for fibre, significantly increasing the forest areas, perhaps planted without proper assessment for site suitability, visual impact or benefits for wildlife.

READ MORE: Funding for tree planting welcome but large forests are needed to hit target, says Confor​

“However, these wood-producing forests support more wildlife than is commonly understood and many are exemplars of modern multi-purpose forestry.

“From the 1990s onwards, modern forestry has seen trees planted in woodlands managed to high environmental standards, the UK Forestry Standard, with a mix of species and open spaces and areas managed for biodiversity, economy, society and the environment.

“I knew that well-managed modern [conifer] forests could deliver benefits for both climate and biodiversity but much evidence was anecdotal, whether it is the red squirrels in Northumberland, sea eagles on Mull, or woodlark and nightjar in Thetford Forest. Similarly, actively managing native woodlands is key to realising biodiversity potential.

“How are we to change the minds of our detractors? Spurred on by the alarm bells of the nature crisis, we had to look at the available evidence, speak to practitioners and produce a report.”

Forestry Journal: Sea eagle.Sea eagle.

Eleanor Harris, Confor’s policy researcher and author of ‘Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood,’ said: “Some woods are managed for biodiversity. Some woods are managed for wood production. This report asks, ‘Why not both?’”

Following the reviewing of over a hundred papers, interviews with multiple Confor members, and feedback from expert reviewers and critics, the report is written in three parts.

Part 1 considers the biodiversity value of conifer forests planted for softwood production. “Studies of forests across the UK show they support an astonishing amount of life. Tree species matter little to the forest ecosystem compared to other factors, such as size, structure and management. Native species are vital for some ecosystems – 555 species depend on oak trees –but far larger numbers of birds, mammals, invertebrates, plants, mosses, lichens and fungi will happily inhabit any kind of woods and whose range has expanded thanks to our 20th-century timber forests.

“These studies provide the evidence base for forestry regulations, diversification of the crop with open space and native trees, retention of deadwood and old growth, harvesting timber in a mosaic, creating diverse habitats, the careful siting of forests and the protection of micro-habitats such as wetlands. We now take all this for granted in [modern] forestry practice and our forests have already been delivering for biodiversity. Going forward, they are modelled on best practice to deliver more.”

Part 2 looks at the potential for managing native woodlands for wood and biodiversity simultaneously. “England has almost a million hectares of native woodland, producing little wood for the low-carbon economy (its theoretical potential could increase sustainable production by up to two-thirds). It is not sustaining biodiversity as it should either. Oak may support 555 species, but only in oak woodland habitats nurtured into good condition.

Forestry Journal: Nightjar.Nightjar.

“Conservation timber production can benefit native woodlands in three ways: sensitive extraction (creating sunny glades, space and regeneration of rich old stumps); protection (the single biggest destroyer of English native woodland is grey squirrels), managed while watching for invasive species and disease); and income (timber or firewood sales supplement conservation funding and multiply what can be done).”

A British Woodlands survey shows the management aim of most private owners is nature. “It is the forests that are producing wood that have the most resilient management regimes.”

Part 3 looks at the effect that producing wood in the UK has on biodiverse forests around the world. The UK imports 80 per cent of the wood it uses and is the second biggest importer of wood globally. Globally, use of wood will triple by 2060.

“Wood from plantation forests reduces harvesting of natural forests by 25 per cent around the world. The global rate of forest planting for wood has fallen off this century. We can produce renewable materials without exploiting natural forests, but we are not. The UK, one of the least forested countries in Europe, could take a global lead. Writing this report convinced me that UK wood production and woodland biodiversity is a choice, between having both or having neither. This is one choice we need to get right.”

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Q. Lord Colgrain: “Would planting more forests here to produce wood reduce pressure on global forests and also reduce the risk of importing pests and diseases?”

A. Stuart Goodall: “Global consumption of wood is increasing. My own view is that we should take responsibility where we can. The UK could produce more wood sustainably, whether from existing undermanaged woods or by planting new ones. Doing this will reduce pressure on fragile forests overseas. Accepting that we will never be self-sufficient in wood, and using more home-grown hardwood and softwood, reduce the point of entry for damaging trees pests and diseases.

Q. Ben Lake: “Perceptions. Forestry from the last century comes in for criticism: forests being dark, dense, with little prospect for life. From the old style of plantations, how does the new style of planting compare?

A. Eleanor Harris: “Two things to consider. One: plant trees for timber on a new site and at one point all trees will be same-aged, closed canopy and shading out ground cover, shading out the old ecology. As the woodland matures, flora grows under the new canopy. Two: thinking spatially, you might have a bare forest floor, but above it, birds sing, and lichen grows in the sunshine. A stand can be 100 metres wide, with edges rich in habitat and biodiversity. When harvested, the ecology changes again. Deadwood, light coming in, different species coming in as the scrubland grows up. Overall, the forest habitat is a diverse and dynamic thing.”

Q. Raymond Foley: “Single-aged plantations are not going away. Can the stage between canopy closure and first thinning be avoided (images of lifeless forest floor bring negative publicity for the forestry industry)?”

A. Stuart Goodall: “There is an establishment phase, and we have to go through that to get to the benefits of the mature forest.”

Q. Baroness Young, chair of The Woodland Trust: “Well-managed woodlands of all sorts deliver for biodiversity in their own way. Where specialist species are most threatened, you need particular conditions. We must not lose sight of that in the dash to plant trees. What would you want to see by way of policy shift, when we are focused on planting perhaps to the exclusion of management, to get that spectrum of management more firmly embedded and get the respect of forestry detractors hostile to a picture of forestry that no longer exists?”

A. Stuart Goodall: “The point you make is that there is more to this than just planting trees. I would like the England Forestry Strategy to move away from restrictive outcomes, government developing both policy and delivery mechanisms that provide for a diverse spectrum of engagement in forestry. We are looking for a range of outcomes, and all types of forestry have a role to play.”

Baroness Young rejoined: “We have to recognise that a range of forestry management needs to happen, ensuring that the money available for tree planting is for all types of woodlands.”

Chris Corrigan commented: “All the evidence shows threatened priority species are disproportionately linked to native woodlands. UK flora and fauna has evolved to adapt to these. Non-native tree species may be good for some species, but these are disproportionately common generalists.”

Eleanor Harris responded: “Yes, we need more policy focus on native woodland management. Native woodlands brought back into good condition have used wood production as a tool to help, as referred to in the report.”

Report case study contributor Cheryl Lundberg, senior forestry consultant at Lockhart Garratt, highlighted that taking simple steps at Etisley Estate, opening up rides and creating a rugged woodland edge, resulted in the return of threatened species the turtle dove. She said: “It is unnecessary to classify woodlands as ‘conservation’ or ‘commercial’ with regards to threatened or rare species. They’re not mutually exclusive; they’re one and the same.”

Luke Hemmings, woodland officer for Forestry Commission North East England, contributed case studies to the report from Kielder Forest and Doddington. He said that the UK already has a good environmental standard in the UKFS. Getting parties with differing interests to work together is as important as dispelling outdated views of productive forests. In his experience, productive woodlands support all sorts of species, as well as providing people’s livelihoods and low-carbon building materials for a greener economy. “A win-win if we can get the management right.”

Dan Ridley Ellis, head of the Centre Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, commented: “Species do not have a concept of ‘native’ and ‘non-native’. What many people consider ‘natural’ is an older kind of industrial landscape.”

David Lee asked Baroness Young: “Are we moving away from a black-and-white view of forestry and starting to have more grown-up conversations about what forestry needs to look like in future? Are things improving?”

She responded: “Some are having those conversations, some are not. The England Forest Strategy is going to be a test of whether that is a universally accepted message.”

Stuart Goodall added: “The key thing is that we try to have those conversations with other people, developing evidence bases together as a starting point for delivering the shared objectives of the right type of trees in the right type of places for delivering benefits, rather than having to argue a corner because that is what we feel we have to do. We want a Strategy that facilitates rather than tries to direct. It may fail if it tries to control and manage what we try to do too much.”

David Lee then posed another question to Stuart Goodall: “This report covers areas where there was a lack of analysis. What does Confor hope this report will add to this debate and where do we go from here?”

He answered: “This report is not the final word on the subject. If we are serious about tackling climate change and the crisis of nature, lets ensure we work together on the best available evidence. Then we can achieve a lot more. It frees up the space to do things, not just debate things.”

David Lee summarised: “We have raised awareness of this report, bringing in some different perspectives to talk about the issues raised. There are more conversations to continue from this, and hopefully more collaborations and partnerships to be formed.

“Thanks to everyone for joining us today, to Ben Lake and to all our contributors. We hope to hear more from Lord Goldsmith as the England Tree Strategy takes shape.”

To read Confor’s ‘Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood’ report, go to:

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