A recent flurry of headlines over tree planting may make it look like the UK finally has its act together – but is it all hot air?

READING news about forest cover and new tree planting (real or imagined) is taxing to say the least, but after digesting extensive news coverage in the January 2023 issue of Forestry Journal I feel more like a pheasant at the sharp end of a shoot. 

I flicked over the pages and read piece after piece about more grants and land being earmarked for new tree planting and woodland creation:

£20 million boost from government for projects that modernise forestry, including addressing labour shortages in the nursery sector and grants to ‘blow away’ grey squirrels in south-west England. And a Woodland Creation Accelerator fund to kickstart tree-planting activity.
• RFS, RSFC, Trainhugger UK and Greentree UK teaming up to ‘grow’ tree-planting rates by offering grants for resilient woodlands.
• “Think big, act wild” says ReWilding Britain as it launches its annual ReWilding Challenge Fund.

But I turned the pages once too often and came crashing back to earth with the headline ‘Dismay as [UK government’s] tree-cover target reduced by a third’ screaming in my face. And just weeks after reading how our newest forestry minister Trudy Harrison was pledging to uphold the government’s plans to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland each and every year (Forestry Journal December 2022). 

READ MORE: Forestry minister pledges to uphold UK's planting targets

The Woodland Trust weighed in. CEO Darren Moorcroft said: “The government has gone from hailing themselves to be world leader on nature at UN Biodiversity COP15 [in Montreal, Canada], to delivering watered-down [legally binding] Environment Act targets and making a mockery of those claims. Slashing tree targets by a third from what was consulted is highly disappointing at a time when ambition and action is so desperately needed.” 

The Soil Association’s policy adviser Alex Mackaness dug in deep, calling the move “highly questionable” and saying “ministers should pledge to increase farm woodland cover by 50 per cent”.

So what are the actual figures they are quibbling about? According to proposals, the 14.5 per cent level at which woodland cover sits was supposed to be raised to 17.5 per cent, but this has now been trimmed back to 16.5 per cent under the post-Brexit Environment Act. But even that’s misleading, because despite spiralling energy costs the UK government is still gas-lighting on woodland cover and new tree planting.

The figures relate to English woodland cover only, which as of March 2021 stood at 10.1 per cent and only rises to 14.5 per cent when you slip in the cover afforded by small woods (less than 0.5 ha in area), linear (i.e. hedges) features and individual trees. The very sort of landscape features which Network Rail has been destroying faster than their contractors can fill up their chainsaws.

Forestry Journal: Trudy HarrisonTrudy Harrison (Image: Stock image)

Undeterred, the latest environment secretary, Therese Coffey, went to the UN convention in Montreal and said: “We are committed to leaving our natural world in a better state for future generations, and today we are laying the foundations that will help deliver on this commitment. These targets are ambitious and will be challenging to achieve – but they will drive our efforts to restore our natural environment, protect our much-loved landscapes and green spaces and marine environment, as well as tackle climate change.”

Darren Moorcroft at the Woodland Trust appears to be onto something with his “watering down” comments after some enterprising parliamentarians on the left-hand side used Freedom of Information legislation to dive into the record of Therese Coffey when she was water minister from 2016 to 2019. According to the i newspaper, an analysis of Environment Agency (EA) data showed sewage discharges more than doubling during her tenure, coinciding with her decision to cut a key environmental protection ‘grant in aid’ fund for the EA by a third, amounting to £24 million. This equated to more than 321 years’ worth of sewage dumped in England and Wales over Mrs Coffey’s three years on the job. Let’s hope she doesn’t do for woodland cover now what she is alleged to have done for water quality back then.

But January’s FJ wasn’t quite finished on new tree planting and woodland establishment.

“Grant difficulties are putting off landowners from tree planting,” proclaimed chartered forester Justin Mumford of Nicholsons Lockhart Garratt to a parliamentary committee of MPs. Forestry expert Mike Tustin said red tape is creating a “broken” forestry system in England and Wales. On another page, forestry minister Trudy Harrison said she wanted to take a chainsaw to tree-planting times, though if recent polls are anything to go by, there’s a majority out there that would sooner take a chainsaw to this government.

Last but not least arrived the real elephant in the room. Forest Research had adjusted its initial figures for forest damage caused by Storm Arwen (late November 2021) upwards to a total of 12,000 ha. 3,350 ha of that was sustained in England, which means that England’s woodland cover, far from expanding, is actually retreating, because that 3,350 ha lost to Storm Arwen is considerably more than the 2,300 ha of woodland planted across England during the latest (2021–2022) period. 

If you consider conifer cover only, the situation looks even more worrying, because only 300 ha of conifers were planted in England during the period 2021–2022. Forest Research figures do not give a breakdown of exactly what type of stands were lost in terms of species and age but going on past experience and pictures taken in the aftermath of Storm Arwen, conifers certainly appear to have taken the brunt.

This makes Confor’s recent call for a 50-50 conifer/broadleaf split in new planting look meek and mild. Anyway, what has it come to when the country’s ‘forestry and wood trade body’ has to plead with politicians (who don’t know the difference between a concolor fir and a cherry plum) for more timber-producing trees to be put in the ground before it is too late?

Forestry Journal: Richard Stanford Richard Stanford (Image: Supplied)

This brings me finally to a peculiar comment from Richard Stanford, CEO of the Forestry Commission, calling for an end to the dogma around conifer trees, reported on page 8 of January’s FJ. To illustrate the piece, I was pleased to see FJ had used one of my many pictures taken over the years when out on assignment, particularly appropriate given the place and circumstances in which this one was taken. 

It was on a sandy site in Surrey where Scots pine trees traditionally thrive. I was out with two forestry contracting companies tasked with clear-felling the Scots pine and doing some general maintenance to broadleaf trees also growing on the site. They were scruffy oak, sweet chestnut and birch, typical of sandy sites south of the River Thames in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. Some replanting was due to take place, but as I recall, terms of the felling licence precluded any restocking with conifers, including Scots pine, though it was clear these were the ‘right trees for the right place’, to use that now well-worn and often meaningless phrase.

I distinctly recall what the contractor said when I asked him about the self-same thing.

“Regeneration and re-stocking with broadleaves is what the Forestry Commission wanted. They did not want any conifers on this site.”

I would like to know which organisation Richard Stanford thinks has been delivering the dogma around conifers over the last two decades.

I await the next issue of Forestry Journal with trepidation and a stiff drink.