Last month, the National Audit Office published a report into the achievability of the government’s tree-planting targets. It did not make pleasant reading for officials – or for the rest of us.

IT’S March and planting season is winding down, when out comes a report saying tree planting in England is well short of the government’s targets, throwing considerable doubt on Boris Johnson’s promise of new woodland and its key role in achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – if the country can achieve them at all. 

The report did not come from concerned conservationists or angry rewilders, as you might expect, but a public spending watchdog – none less than the National Audit Office (NAO), a body which is independent of both central and local government. 

The government is committed to increasing tree planting in the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by March 2025, the equivalent of 90 million to 120 million trees. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has overall responsibility for the delivery of England’s contribution of 7,500 ha and this is the main focus of the NAO report. 

As DEFRA’s senior delivery partner, the Forestry Commission (FC) leads on administering grant schemes to support private and public landowners to plant trees and establish woodlands. The FC is also responsible for supporting the forestry and nursery sectors to ensure there are enough saplings and a skilled workforce.

In 2021, DEFRA published its England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 (ETAP), which sets out proposed government actions for this Parliament, in partnership with the private sector, the third sector and communities, and to put England on course for trebling woodland planting rates by March 2025. And with the ambition to increase England’s woodland cover from 10 per cent to 12 per cent by 2050. £624 million has been allocated so far as part of the ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ (NCF). DEFRA will use this for new woodland creation partnerships with local authorities and charities, and to provide landowners with grants and advice to increase woodland creation. 

READ MORE: EFRA tree planting report 2022: UK Government criticised for 'lack of focus' and push for homegrown timber

DEFRA has established the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme (NCFTP), the aim of which is to fund tree planting and to get on track to the 7,500 ha/year by 2025. NCFTP comprises a range of different grant schemes and funds with a trio of ‘enabling’ projects covering the supply of seeds and saplings, promotion and engagement.

In another world, the NAO report would be described as ‘scathing’, but cool heads and measured minds in grey suits don’t do scathing. Instead, they salami-slice the figures and present them in such a cool and calculated way that even the most committed DEFRA bag-carrier could not help but see what they are saying. And they don’t waste any time in carving up government plans. 

UNREALISTIC, UNACHIEVABLE TARGETS

They start by questioning the very foundations of the government’s tree-planting targets for England and suggest, in no uncertain terms, how they look unattainable within the 2022 to 2025 timeframe.  The NAO report immediately questions whether the target was over-ambitious and not realistic. Indeed, a figure of 7,500 ha/year has not been reached in a single 12-month period for the past half-century. It has only exceeded 6,000 ha in three years since 1972. 

Forestry Journal: The NAO report highlights availability of planting material as a potential hurdle to reaching the England target of 7,500 ha of new planting by March 2025. Nursery beds of noble fir seen here.The NAO report highlights availability of planting material as a potential hurdle to reaching the England target of 7,500 ha of new planting by March 2025. Nursery beds of noble fir seen here.

DEFRA’s forecast made in January 2022 for ‘trees in the ground’ and financed by the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme for 2021–22 is somewhere between 1,400 and 1,900 ha, which is well short of the 2,577 ha ambition. As of January 2022, just 809 ha or 31 per cent of the ambition (2,577 ha) had been confirmed by DEFRA, says the report. Assuming DEFRA achieves 1,650 ha, the mid-point figure of the range, that represents 461 ha (22.40 per cent) and 690 ha (29.50 per cent) falls on the 2,060 ha and 2,340 ha planted in 2020/2021 and 2019/2020, respectively. 

DEFRA’s tree-planting target was arrived at without sufficient consideration given to whether it was achievable, says the NAO, and the broad range of benefits the programme is trying to achieve – carbon sequestration, climate mitigation, conservation and timber production. The launch of any new programme requires departments to set realistic targets to guarantee that stakeholder expectations are managed, while minimising the risk of headline targets driving decisions that in turn reduce the overall benefits, states the report. 

For its part, DEFRA told the NAO how it used available evidence about historic woodland expansion statistics, potential sector capacity, land availability, and current policy drivers for woodland expansion in order to arrive at 7,500 ha as a realistic and achievable target. But the NAO questions this and says DEFRA did not undertake a detailed assessment of this evidence or consider whether historical planting rates could be exceeded when also trying to achieve the NCFTP’s multiple environmental objectives by ensuring the right trees are planted in the right place. 

PLANTING AND PEOPLE

Availability of seed, seedlings and saplings and people at all levels are clearly crucial for meeting tree-planting targets. The NAO report calls out a shortage of both planting material and personnel in rendering DEFRA’s targets unlikely to be reached. 

Forestry Journal:  Farmers may envisage trailer-loads of timber passing out through the farm gate in half a century’s time, but indications so far are for broadleaf semi-natural woodland being government’s, DEFRA’s and the FC’s top priority for England’s tree-planting programme. Farmers may envisage trailer-loads of timber passing out through the farm gate in half a century’s time, but indications so far are for broadleaf semi-natural woodland being government’s, DEFRA’s and the FC’s top priority for England’s tree-planting programme.

“Availability of seeds and saplings is a critical risk to DEFRA achieving its tree-planting target” and “a shortage of ‘on the ground’ expertise is also a major risk for the ‘Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme’ (NCFTP)”, says the report.

SEED, SEEDLING AND SAPLING SUPPLIES 

Forest nurseries need up to four years to access and sow seed and grow germinated seedlings on before young trees are ready for sale and planting into the field. Stoppages and blockages of supply lines caused by COVID-19 are estimated to have reduced the expected supply of planting material by around 10 per cent over the next two to three years. DEFRA does not know whether suppliers of seedlings and saplings are ready to meet a rapidly increasing demand to attain the tree -planting target, says the report. 

DEFRA has established a project with a budget of £25 million over four years to 2025 to rapidly increase the domestic supply of seeds and saplings. As part of this, the FC is developing a Nursery Notification Scheme to help provide reliable data to nurseries about the pipeline of demand. DEFRA is also investing in the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) capacity to check imported plants and reduce biosecurity risks from importing pests and diseases. 

However, talk to owners of forest nurseries and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that pests and diseases and lack of guidance from UK forest authorities on future demand in volume and species have been a source of uncertainty for decades. The sector still smarts from a succession of pest and disease disasters in which planting preferences and regulations changed, often ‘overnight’. Major disease events like Dothistroma needle blight impacting on Corsican pine, Phytophthora ramorum on larch, and chalara ash dieback, which destroyed the market for common ash planting material. Nursery owners were left with the burden and losses from having to lift and burn millions of plants through no fault of their own and without any compensation from government. 

And the whole sorry saga could be set for a re-run with Phytophthora pluvialis already entrenched on western hemlock and perhaps Douglas fir. Talk to a nursery owner and he or she will invariably tell you how there has been a lack of initiative and guidance from the UK forest authorities on what species to sow. Nursery owners have been left to second guess the supply and demand situation four years down the line, clearly not the sort of experiences likely to encourage nursery owners to invest huge sums on the say-so of government and its delivery partners.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND 

The NAO report says the FC has an 18-per-cent shortfall in staff needed in 2021-22 to deliver the NCFTP, with the most serious shortfall in qualified foresters working directly with landowners. These are men and women who promote the benefits of tree planting to landowners, provide advice on the most effective planting approaches and guide them through the regulatory process. NAO says they are crucial to achieving the overall tree-planting target and also ensuring that trees planted will maximise the net zero and wider environmental benefits. 

Forestry Journal:  Insufficient qualified and experienced ‘boots on the ground’ is called out as a potential block to achieving the March 2025 target of 7,500 ha. Insufficient qualified and experienced ‘boots on the ground’ is called out as a potential block to achieving the March 2025 target of 7,500 ha.

The FC needs to rapidly expand its own workforce, as well as increasing capacity across the forestry sector in future years to fulfil the requirement for a major increase in numbers of appropriate staff to 425 by 2025, which is more than a four-fold increase on the 100 on the payroll in 2019. NAO acknowledges how one of DEFRA’s ‘enabling’ projects aims to address sector capacity challenges, but says the shortage of qualified foresters and of suitable occupational courses to feed future recruitment remains a major concern for the FC.

GETTING LANDOWNERS ONSIDE 

DEFRA hopes to use public land to help achieve its tree-planting target. However, the NAO report says DEFRA is heavily dependent on private landowners choosing to plant trees and uncertainty about future government funding is putting them off. Planting trees and creating woodland, they say, are long-term business decisions for both farmers and landowners who need to consider whether to forgo ‘premium’ agricultural land for woodland creation.

DEFRA has increased the value of grants available compared with previous schemes and has told the NAO that demand for the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO), the NCFTP’s flagship scheme, has been high. DEFRA launched a promotion and engagement project including developing a strategy to promote woodland creation in readiness to start the delivery phase by autumn 2021. 

Indeed, on the very day of the report’s publication (March 4), DEFRA and the FC mounted an advertising blitz in Farmers Weekly, England’s premier farming journal. A huge double-page spread – ‘PUT DOWN ROOTS with Woodland Creation, Receive £10,000s by creating woodland’ – was followed by another spread a few pages on in case readers had missed the first one. ‘PLANT FOR THE FUTURE, create a lasting legacy that benefits you and future generations’, said the latter. Clearly they are serious, although it seems a strange time for such a crescendo, with the end of the current planting season just weeks away and farmers preoccupied with more immediate things like spraying and the lambing season.

However, it might take even more publicity and financial incentives than this, because the NAO says many stakeholders have informed them about how landowners are discouraged from committing land to tree planting because of uncertainty over how much priority government will give to tree-planting against its other priorities delivered through ELM after 2025. DEFRA also has a challenge to regain the trust of farmers, which it lost as a result of a history of mismanagement of previous agricultural subsidy schemes, and this too may impact on take-up, says the report.

VALUE FOR MONEY - OR NOT

At the end of the day, the job of the National Audit Office is to decide whether a plan, project, programme or policy is value for money, and the following is what they had to say about the ‘Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme’ in England.

“Despite DEFRA’s efforts, new tree planting in 2021–22 looks set to be well short of what it set out to achieve. This makes its 2025 target and a continued increase beyond 2025 to the levels required for the government’s net-zero strategy look all the more challenging. DEFRA’s Future Forestry Project, launched in October 2021, will explore the longer-term challenges and a range of fundamental policy changes, but DEFRA is not yet doing enough to establish where the foundations for longer-term delivery – nursery capacity, the sector workforce, private investment and public engagement – need to be by 2025 to set up a sustainable increase in tree planting. Without managing the Programme (NCFTP) more firmly in the context of the long-term picture, DEFRA is unlikely to achieve value for money.”

PERTINENT POINTS

Ambition in England for new tree planting and woodland cover further down the line at 12 per cent, up two per cent on the current figure, may not necessarily ride in tandem. Estimates, calculations and projections on new tree planting and woodland cover cannot be considered in isolation from ongoing tree and woodland losses, especially with inclement weather and pest and disease damage now on the increase. Tree losses sustained during storms and through sanitation felling and the need to replant affected areas will surely impact on the capacity and capability available for new planting.

Forestry Journal: DEFRA and FC officials will need to persuade farmers to plant trees on arable land growing crops or pasture supporting livestock like sheep shown here.DEFRA and FC officials will need to persuade farmers to plant trees on arable land growing crops or pasture supporting livestock like sheep shown here.

Especially since as the NAO report points out how there are already insufficient numbers of qualified and experienced boots on the ground. You could imagine a situation where new planting is the political priority, subsequently putting replanting on the back burner. 

In this context it is worth pointing out the scale of recent tree losses. Reports suggest Storm Arwen alone destroyed or damaged eight million trees in Scotland. Sitka spruce is planted at 2,500 trees/ha and at final clear-fell is down to 400 stems/ha. Given that most of the trees which came down in Storm Arwen were well grown, it is reasonable to assume that tree cover of the affected areas averaged out at around 1,000 trees/ha.

That would be 8,000 ha of forest lost in Scotland alone to a single storm in one year. Phytophthora ramorum was identified on larch in Wales in 2010. In the following four to five years, 6,000 ha of woodland (roughly six million trees) in the country were affected by the disease. 

READ MORE: EFRA tree planting report 2022: More criticism of ministers in wake of scathing assessment

At the end of the day, success or failure of the government’s tree planting plans and programme for England may well rest, as the NAO report says, on persuading farmers that longer-term profits from timber outweigh the shorter-term profits derived from arable crops and livestock production, thus prompting them to plant trees on agriculturally productive land. 

The trouble for farmers is that the NCFTP is about a whole lot more than growing softwood to secure the quickest profit. The ‘catch’ appears to be in the name, with ‘Nature’ and ‘Climate’ pre-eminent requirements in the tree-planting and woodland-establishment ‘equation’. Farmers may be attracted by the prospect of trailer-loads of softwood sawlogs passing through the farm gate in 40 to 50 years’ time, but I would not bank on that. Clues in everything I have read so far suggest conifers are likely to be a junior partner to native broadleaves in the UK government’s thinking for England.

Time will tell if the Russian invasion of Ukraine and already visible effects on the cost of agricultural inputs like fertilizer and livestock feed rations, as well as selling price and potential profits from the sale of crop commodities like milling wheat, will sway minds either way in the UK farming community. 

Forestry Journal: The DEFRA/FC Programme for tree planting in England will rely heavily on private landowners planting trees.The DEFRA/FC Programme for tree planting in England will rely heavily on private landowners planting trees.

And I suspect the government is already weighing up the future of UK food security and how, for instance, to secure future supplies of bread-making wheat and other cereals, and whether this means they are forced to alter their plans for planting trees and establishing woodland on agriculturally productive land. 

The whole Black Sea region, including Ukraine, is one of the key bread baskets of the world, and I doubt whether planting this year’s crop of spring wheat is uppermost in the minds of many Ukrainian farmers.