DEFRA did not do enough to ensure tree planting targets of 7,500 hectares per year were achievable, a spending watchdog has said. 

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised officials for failing to set realistic goals and for launching a major scheme to reach them - the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme - before it had been fully developed. 

As part of the government's net zero strategy, DEFRA will need to "overcome significant challenges" to hit the annual target by 2025, NAO chiefs said, including finding enough qualified staff. At no point in the last 50 years has the yearly rate of tree-planting in England reached 7,500 ha and it has only risen above 6,000 ha in three of the last 50 years. 

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For the 2020/21 season, it was estimated between just 1,400 to 1,900 ha of new trees had been planted. However, the body was praised for launching a number of new schemes to support landowners plant trees. 

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Despite its efforts, [DEFRA] is not expecting to achieve the amount of new tree-planting in 2021-22 that it set out to, and should have done more to make sure its targets were realistic.

“There are significant challenges Defra will need to address if it is to achieve its ambitious targets and support government’s wider Net Zero agenda.

Forestry Journal: DEFRA estimates between 1,400 and 1,900 ha of trees were planted this season DEFRA estimates between 1,400 and 1,900 ha of trees were planted this season

"These include sustaining the interest of landowners, ensuring there are sufficient skills on the ground and securing the active support of other parts of government.”

Some of the challenges that DEFRA and its partners will need to manage if they are to achieve tree-planting target include:

  • Private landowners being discouraged from planting trees due to uncertainty about future government funding.
  • The need to secure stronger support from other government departments so that they plant more trees on the land they manage.
  • Risks to the availability of seeds and saplings due to tree nurseries either closing or reducing production levels.
  • A shortfall in the staff needed to deliver the programme, including sufficient experts such as qualified foresters.

The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: "The challenge of climate change requires stretching targets and high ambition.

"The NAO report acknowledges that we have worked at pace in difficult circumstances to rise to this challenge but we are under no illusion that there is more to do.

Forestry Journal: George EusticeGeorge Eustice

"That is why we will treble the number of trees planted rates by the end of this Parliament, backed up by over £500m.”