The topic for June’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGF&TP) meeting was, ‘Do the new tree planting statistics tell us the UK’s 30,000-hectare target won’t be met?’. Carolyne Locher reports.

WELCOMING 33 virtual attendees, APPG Chair Ben Lake MP set the scene. “It has been a busy few weeks. We have had the publication of the England Trees Action Plan, and the 2020/21 statistics on new woodland creation starkly set out how challenging it will be for the UK to plant 30,000 ha of new woodland each year by the end of this parliament. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee continues to look closely at planting trees.”

A presentation from Confor’s chief executive Stuart Goodall reflected on ‘Flat tree planting figures and rising timber prices: time to join the dots’.

“Published on 17th June, Forest Research statistics show the UK’s forested area at 13 per cent (England, 10 per cent; Scotland, 19 per cent; Wales, 15 per cent; and Northern Ireland, 9 per cent). The European average is 46 per cent. Planting in recent years has been cyclical, most recently with Scotland delivering 80 per cent of new planting.”

In 2020/21, a total of 13,410 hectares were planted across the UK, broken down per country as follows:

  • Scotland: 10,660 ha (conifers: 6,940/broadleaves: 3,720)
  • England: 2,180 ha (conifers: 110/broadleaves: 2,070)
  • Wales: 290 ha (conifers: 80/broadleaves: 210)
  • Northern Ireland: 280 ha (conifers: 0.07/broadleaves: 0.22)

“Broad titles of ‘conifers’ or ‘broadleaves’ do not illustrate planting for productive purposes or give any indication of native plantings.

“Scotland’s figures have been stable. In Wales, figures are up on last year. There is a desire to plant and when funding is available, it is oversubscribed. Like England, it needs to look at the processes for approving grant schemes. The new government has established a ‘carbon’ department, which may help this. Northern Ireland has modest ambitions that it has struggled to meet. England, to contribute to government targets, must treble planting levels. I expect little has been planted with the intention of producing wood.”

Forestry Journal: The price of imported timber has risen 139 per cent in the last 12 months.The price of imported timber has risen 139 per cent in the last 12 months.

Headlines from a selection of media outlets highlight the lack of timber supply. “The price of imported timber has risen 139 per cent in the last 12 months.”

Between 2018 and 2025, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecasted a rise in global demand for softwood of 13 per cent, then trebling up to 2060. “People want wood to decarbonise industry (building and construction) and for renewable energy.”

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The UK’s current planting rates indicate that home-grown wood supply will fall by a third between 2030 and 2050. Planting even a quarter of the 30,000-ha-a-year ambition with productive forests could reverse this trend, potentially increasing future supply.

In summary: “With three to four years to go, the 30,000-ha-a-year target looks beyond us. The UK government is not embracing wood production. Why are we not seeing more productive planting, especially in England, given that it delivers carbon and rural employment benefits and, as new evidence shows, it can make a significant contribution to biodiversity?”

This new evidence, from researchers at Bangor University, was published in the journal Nature. Titled ‘Commercial afforestation can deliver effective climate change mitigation under multiple decarbonisation pathways’, the report looks at the ‘whole lifecycle’ carbon benefits of productive forestry. One of the four authors, Eilidh Forster, shared their findings.

“Our finding was that commercial forestry can achieve significantly more carbon benefit than more natural broadleaf systems in the same time period we looked at, up to 2.5 times in some scenarios.”

Confor’s England manager Caroline Ayer considered ‘Delivering the England Trees Action Plan and our net-zero responsibilities: what next?’.

“The Plan focuses on green jobs, levelling up skills for a thriving forest economy, increasing nursery capacity and a greater use of wood. Acknowledging forestry is an economically important sector, government must show conviction.

“English tree planting targets are (unofficially) 7,000 ha. We must deliver sufficient productive planting to supply wood for products, a majority of softwood with some hardwood.”

The last few decades of planting have mostly been ‘native’ species, supporting biodiversity and amenity use. “In the UK, hardwood represents less than 8 per cent of the wood produced, 80 per cent going for firewood because these woods are unmanaged. Government now regulates this market for air quality. Growing hardwood is desirable, but it will not replace softwood volumes for quality timber or for the range of products required.”

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The Plan does not address the threat of grey squirrels. “They cause an estimated loss of 3,000 ha of woodlands a year, turning those stands into firewood at best. To grow quality hardwood timber and deliver the public benefits that government supports, this must be addressed.”

The Plan foresees less distinction between commercial woods and amenity woodlands. “We ask that stakeholders do not criticise the industry for what our predecessors did 40 years ago, to reject divisive language (‘non-native’, ‘exotic,’ ‘production’ vs ‘biodiversity’) and to help deliver 7,000 ha of new planting in England.

“We support UKFS-compliant modern, mixed, multipurpose forestry. We embrace biodiversity. We also need to grow wood for products and to ensure land managers and farmers create a legacy, not a liability, for future generations.”

APPG vice chair Lord Carrington shared his experience of managing three very different woodlands, each around 100 acres in size, in ‘The need to fund woodland management’.

The first, ancient woodland re-purchased from the FC in the 1970s, was covered in dying Corsican. “Over the next 25 years, we replanted with oak (and other hardwoods). It is now thriving. A rough shoot operates in and around the wood and it has no vermin problems. Following a clearfell of 5 acres (Chalara) the last block was replanted last year. A Woodland Tree Health Grant covered part of the cost, but did not carry over to a management scheme, and existing woods do not qualify for carbon credits. The wood is a net cost, but in the future, it will produce good commercial timber.”

Forestry Journal: The prices for wheat and other commodities are currently so high that no farmer will put arable land into woods, said Lord Carrington.The prices for wheat and other commodities are currently so high that no farmer will put arable land into woods, said Lord Carrington.

The second, an old beechwood on the Chilterns escarpment, faces north. With no commercial value, it is visible from the M40. “The beech has been dying for years. The natural regeneration is ash. With a similar grant, replanting starts this year. The wood has problems with squirrels, deer and more. Despite the grant, it will only look good for a year. Going forward, it will be underfunded and undermanaged because there are no schemes to keep it looking nice.”

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The third, a north-facing urban woodland, also suffers squirrels and other pests. “Selling land to a developer, we negotiated with the council for part of the proceeds to go into a fund to finance woodland improvements going forward. With much public access, a group of volunteers have agreed to manage it. The community has an asset and I have got rid of a liability.” This formula could work for other woodlands in similar positions.

For Lord Carrington, management funding guaranteed for 15 years under the Farm Woodland Schemes (1970/80s) was the best. “Those woods now look splendid.”

Conversely, the Countryside Stewardship’s Woodland Improvement Grant, offering five years of funding, comes with so many conditions attached that “small woodland owners are not taking it up”.

Opening the Q&A, Ben Lake combined two questions.

Q. “Scotland is a conifer country. Why prioritise grants for non-productive broadleaves when much-needed productive forestry can tie up carbon more quickly due to its growth rates and the greater demand for softwood can mean sequestering carbon for up to 200 years?”

A. SG: “In England, influential voices make the case for broadleaf woodlands as more effective at displacing carbon based on very narrow assessments. Hopefully, the latest broader evidence (from Eilidh Forster and colleagues) will change this. Planting productive conifers has greater carbon benefits alongside many other benefits including, post-COVID-19, rural jobs. If carbon is the principal driver, we need a broader and more balanced approach to planting. Evidentially, 80/20 does not fulfill this.

“The Scottish government understands that conifers sequester and displace more carbon from the atmosphere. Targets of 60 per cent new plantings being productive have been met.”

Q. “When will we know the shape of future farming support? Without a clear picture, it is difficult to make such a dramatic change in land use as planting trees.”

A. CA: “The England Woodland Creation Offer – a precursor to ELMS – dips its toes into natural capital payments, supplements that reward for delivery. Under ELMS, we have the Sustainable Farming Incentive, of little benefit to Confor members. We will see what the next steps (Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Scale Nature Recovery) offer. Like mushrooms, we are kept the dark.”

Q. “Reducing numbers of grey squirrels is ineffective. Is it better to eliminate them all?”

A. LC: “Politically, it is impossible to eliminate all grey squirrels. The public would not accept it.”

Rejoinder: “If we explain the consequences of not eliminating them, the UK not contributing to global climate change mitigation and that we carry on importing vast amounts of timber because we are incapable of producing it ourselves, attitudes could change.”

A. LC: “I don’t think it possible or desirable to get rid of a whole species.”

Q. “Will there be a seasonal workers route for EU nationals coming to work in the UK?”

A. SG: “Ahead of Brexit we said that we needed people to come in to deliver the increased levels of planting we need. DEFRA did not extend the visa scheme to planting. If you are impacted by this and have evidence that there is a problem, please get in touch with us.”

Q. “How can Scottish forestry conservators be encouraged to follow national tree-planting objectives and targets, when often they do not personally agree with them?”

A. SG: “If those responsible for deciding and delivering policy lack the desire to deliver it, that is something we want to pick up on and to find out why.”

Q. “Evidence from Welsh and English farmers suggests that although they would be unlikely to debate the evidence supporting conifers both for carbon and economic reasons, these are not the primary drivers of those making decisions on the ground. How does forestry intend to engage with these multiple drivers alongside forestry’s primary drivers?”

A. CA: “ELMS has opened a dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders and shown them that we can have food and fibre. Some farmers do not see woodland as delivering to their bottom line because they have not had that advice. We have work to do.”

A. LC: “The prices for wheat and other commodities are currently so high that no farmer will put arable land into woods. We are unlikely to see any take-up until probably 2024, when ELMS schemes have been properly announced.”

Q. “In a long conversation last week, a senior Forestry Commission official said that the Forestry Minister hopes to see a planting mix of 20 per cent conifer, 30 per cent natural regeneration, 50 per cent planted broadleaves. How do you respond to that?”

A. LC: “In England, the type of land you have dictates the sorts of trees you have. The new England Woodland Creation Offer makes sense only for Grade 4 or 5 land. This new offer looks generous, because all payments offer up to a certain amount for certain types of activity. Very few people will tick all the boxes.”

A. SG: “DEFRA has said this 80/20 split was not policy. It would be frustrating if planting was not driven by the stated policy drivers and evidence. Not all trees are the same.”

Joining the dots, the UK will struggle to deliver the 30,000-ha-a-year planting ambition.

Acknowledging the many issues to take up with government, Ben Lake thanked the panel and the audience and wished all a good summer break.

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