TREE-PLANTING rates have reached their lowest levels for five years in the UK, new statistics have revealed. 

Just 12,960 hectares of woodland were created in the 12 months prior to the end of March 2023, around 1,000 ha fewer than the previous year and the first time the figure has fallen below 13,000 ha since the 2017/18 planting season. 

The new total is not much more than a third of the UK government's annual goal of 30,000 ha per year by the end of 2025.

READ MORE: UK once again misses tree-planting targets

Scotland came out on top of the country's four nations, but its performance was strikingly poorer than previous years. It saw rates hit just 8,190 ha, well short of the 10,480 ha recorded last year. It is the first time figures have fallen below 10,000 ha north of the border in half a decade. 

According to the Forest Research document, England created 3,130 ha of new woodland (a rise of nearly 1,000 ha), Wales 1,190 ha (around double on last year's total) and Northern Ireland 451 ha (a fall of around 100 ha). 

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, praised the progress made in England and Wales, but said: "The 30,000-hectares target is a manifesto commitment, but we’re not making the progress required towards meeting it.

"It’s vital that we seize the day by going further and faster - to produce the timber we need in this country and avoid an ever-increasing reliance on imports. The UK currently imports 81 per cent of its wood products at a cost of more than £11 billion, according to latest figures.

“This increasing ‘timber insecurity’ is bad for the UK’s economy and bad for the environment. We can, and must, do better.”

READ MORE: What the UK's forestry bosses said in the wake of tree-planting failures

Other notable findings in the annual statistics include: 

  • Broadleave planting overtook conifers, accounting for 6.63 ha compared to conifers' 6,330 ha. This is the first time conifer rates have fallen below 7,000 ha since the 2017/18 planting season 
  • The majority of planting took place on private land across all four nations, with only 300 ha of woodland creation  being done on public land 
  • Around 12,000 ha of publicly-funded woodland restocking were reported in the UK in 2022/23.
  • Woodland Carbon Code projects in the UK that were validated (including those that were also verified) at 31 March 2023 were predicted to sequester a total of 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over their lifetime of up to 100 year.

The warning signs have been there for Scotland in recent times, with industry body Confor going so far as to call on the government to get the country's forestry industry "back on track"

In the wake of today's figures, Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon confirmed she would chair a Scottish Forestry Summit with industry leaders and land management bodies.

READ MORE: Emergency forestry summit will be held in wake of planting rates

She said: "Action is needed and both the private and public sector must collectively step up and improve its output.

“We need to dramatically increase the level of woodland creation approvals and improve on the quality of applications being submitted as quite frankly the current status is not acceptable.

“We also need to work with the sector to try to increase capacity and reduce the proportion of woodland creation projects that are being delayed after approval, as this is key to increasing confidence about future planting levels. We need to get back on track and tackle the unwelcome dip and kick start a revival to move our planting figures in the right direction." 

While England's improvement will provide plenty of encouragement for ministers, it is still falling short of its own 7,500 ha target. At no point in the last 50 years has the yearly rate of tree-planting in the nation reached those ambitions and it has only risen above 6,000 ha in three of the last 50 years. 

READ MORE: Scotland's new forestry secretary told to 'get industry back on track'

Speaking on this morning's Farming Today ahead of the release of the figures, Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission, said: "We have very challenging targets and it is extremely important that we get tree planting right. 

"But I am exciting by the progress we are making. We are seeing a significant step up in tree planting." 

When asked how meaningful a target is when it is always missed, he said: "I think it is an aspiration and it sets the scene for us to have real ambition."