Despite an urgent need for timber and odds stacked against reaching maturity, the UK is now planting more broadleaves than conifers. And the cause? A lot of misinformation, half-truths and bad-faith arguments going unchallenged in the national press. It’s time commercial forestry got to grips with the case against it – and understood who’s making it.

FORESTRY – and I use the word advisedly – is on a hiding to nothing. The latest tree-planting figures for 2022–2023 are revealing. Not because Scotland took a sabbatical after a sterling performance and contribution to overall UK planting, and not even because overall UK figures were actually worse than for the previous year, way short of the government’s target. 

No, the reason is that new plantings of broadleaves outstripped those of conifers in the UK as a whole. And if it were not for Scotland’s overwhelming contribution to conifer planting then home-grown softwood timber prospects in 50 years’ time would be in the realms of deadwood. 

Sure, broadleaves can be grown for commercial hardwood timber, but a collection of culprits including grey squirrel, deer, chalara ash dieback, Dutch elm disease and acute oak decline continue to make this increasingly difficult – especially given the long rotation times for broadleaves during which such trees will be vulnerable to a mushrooming myriad of pests and diseases. In addition, the fast-approaching void in home-grown timber supplies caused by the cut-off in conifer planting in the 1990s, lasting until relatively recently, requires continual focus on fast-growing firs to minimise the impact. 

The term ‘forestry’ has become all things to all men, with ‘urban forestry’ also established jargon. A significant proportion of our woodlands, including some productive ones, are in urban-like situations for which the terminology is entirely appropriate. But please don’t use it to describe the pruning of a Turkish hazel growing on a grass verge while Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe’s poodle has a pee up the tree. 

The word forestry should be reserved for planting, cultivation and felling of trees for timber. Wood is standing material which gives trees strength and stability and enables the transport of water and nutrients from the roots to growing tissues and leaves in the canopy. Timber refers to wood after the tree has been felled and for processing at the mill. ‘Standing timber’ is an accepted term for trees under assessment before an ultimate face-off with the blade.


Forestry Journal: At least with tree planting you get want you want in the way of woodland. Common beech getting close to clear-fell for timber on Forestry Commission land in the Surrey Hills.At least with tree planting you get want you want in the way of woodland. Common beech getting close to clear-fell for timber on Forestry Commission land in the Surrey Hills. (Image: Dr Terry Mabbett)

So why is the forestry industry shying away from planting conifers? I would argue the reason is the drip-drip effect of anti-conifer propaganda in the national media, which has already had the desired effect in England and Wales and now appears to to be gaining ground in Scotland. 
English national dailies are a prime source of this ‘cosh the conifers’ propaganda which is soaked up like a sponge by a generally uninformed, misinformed, confused and sceptical general public.

One of the best articles yet appeared in the i newspaper, with an eye-catching title – ‘Planting new forests risks eco disaster’ – authored by Daniel Capurro. 

There is no way you can ignore such a title that goes against the grain of all contemporary thinking. A subsequent read revealed the usual ‘fear the forest plantation’ message, but also pushed arguments for no new tree planting at all. Instead, all new woodland would be created by regeneration and natural expansion of existing woodland. 

READ MORE: What does the future hold for conifers amid broadleaf planting boom?

Such articles, which the forestry industry would be foolish to dismiss, have a standard format and plan of attack. They harness the views of people whose titles would reasonably lead readers to believe they know what they are talking about and have views appropriate for the topic under discussion. This article featured Ed Ikin, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Wakehurst site, and Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission. The Wakehurst site (near Haywards Heath in Sussex) is owned by the National Trust, but used and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 


Forestry Journal: According to Mr Ikin we should rely on existing woodland and let nature do the rest. But nature doesn’t always oblige, like English oak which struggles to regenerate under its own shade.According to Mr Ikin we should rely on existing woodland and let nature do the rest. But nature doesn’t always oblige, like English oak which struggles to regenerate under its own shade. (Image: Supplied)

‘Booming’ is how the article described current tree-planting figures for Britain, citing concern from conservation groups worried the rush will come at the expense of other habitats. Whether or not the word ‘booming’ is an apt description for the figures is highly questionable and presumably not the view of the forestry industry. However, it was necessary to present this version of reality to support the arguments subsequently set out in the article.

“We are still having conifers planted on peat bogs,” said Ed Ilkin. “This is about as short-sighted a move as you can make from an environmental perspective.” 

The author elaborated: “The wrong kind of tree planting can have all sorts of negative consequences.”

So what is the wrong kind of tree planting? According to the article it is the planting of conifers on any kind of peat-based soil, including shallow peat. Fair enough, but banning tree planting from any soil with a peat component, however shallow, will presumably preclude tree planting from a lot of upland areas. It’s worth remembering that upland Britain is already overwhelmed by uncontrolled and uncontrollable bracken which will presumably be given a freer hand than it already has without some well-organised plantation forestry. 

Most of these upland peat areas supported trees before they were cleared for sheep farming, as evident from trees and tree roots buried in the peat and turned up by the plough during tree-planting programmes like the infamous Flow Country project in Scotland some four decades ago.

Indeed it was at this point when the author introduced this well-worn story from the so-called wilderness of north-western Scotland. The FC effectively outlawed tree planting on deep peat in the 1990s, presumably in response to the Flow Country story from Caithness and Sutherland, where Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine were planted during the 1980s.

The Flow Country saga is referenced regularly in Forestry Journal with comments from foresters who appear to have been directly involved. Nearly 40 years have passed, yet it apparently still retains enough ammunition to shoot down current conifer planting. 

At this point the author wheeled in Sir William Worsley, chair of the FC, presumably to plant some kind of windbreak for the nation’s increasingly beleaguered conifer plantings. But Sir William was on the back foot straightaway. “There were mistakes made, but one of the problems with forestry is that if you make a mistake, it’s still a mistake decades later,” he said (like allowing conifer planting to fall to historical lows in the 1990s and to remain that way for the next 25 years, leading to home-grown softwood timber supplies falling off of the cliff edge in 10–15 years’ time, perhaps?). But he went on: “The forestry industry has learned huge amounts since then, and we have the UK forest standard, which sets a nationally agreed standard for tree planting.” 

Forestry Journal: Relying on regeneration. Lose ash and get sycamore, but this is not what woodland owners may want.Relying on regeneration. Lose ash and get sycamore, but this is not what woodland owners may want. (Image: Supplied)

While accepting that tree planting was outlawed on deep peat (but not shallow peat), Ed Ikin turned his attention to other ‘highly valuable’ habitats which he claims are being planted over due to a lack of knowledge and research. “Too often grasslands are earmarked as a place to plant trees.

And that probably misses a significant part of the function that they are currently providing. As open habitats, they will be housing pollinators, will be a really quite stable sink of carbon and open habitats tend to be quite good for people.” 


Forestry Journal: No stopping sycamore seedlings seen here colonising grassland.No stopping sycamore seedlings seen here colonising grassland. (Image: Supplied)

That’s all very well, but I seem to recall how the UK government through DEFRA and the FC has been focussing much of its efforts on persuading farmers to plant more trees. So if farmers don’t plant trees on grassland, where do they plant them? On first-class wheat-growing land in East Anglia, potato and pea-fields in Lincolnshire, vegetable-growing soils in the Vale of Evesham and the Fens, or perhaps fruit orchard land in Kent? What’s more, I seem to recall that access to woodland has been shown to be good for people.

The article quotes an instance from 2020 when the food-manufacturing firm Nestle was forced to apologise and rip out hundreds of new trees that had been planted on a wildflower-rich meadow in Cumbria, commented on by the charity Plantlife which said such meadows store more carbon than trees and are crucibles of biodiversity. According to the BBC, the Woodland Trust had given the go-ahead for the tree planting, though this was not mentioned in the article.

Somewhat bemused by the contention that grassland stores more carbon than trees I did a quick literature search. The contention could well be based on research carried out in a region of California which suffers from perennial forest fires. Most carbon stored by grass is underground in the roots, whereas most carbon stored by trees is in the leaves and wood above ground. 

In stable climates, trees store more carbon than grassland but in unstable climatic situations, where fires rage and rampage, grassland may be the more reliable carbon sink. That was the conclusion of the authors from the University of California at Davis. Entirely logical but no excuse for others to make a blanket claim that grassland is a superior sequestration environment than woodland or forest. 

Yet another instance saw the FC face off against the RSPB and Natural England over a pair of unspecified plantations (presumably conifers) in Northumberland because of the impact on ground-nesting birds. The species of birds were not called out, but you can bet your bottom dollar they were the nightjar and woodlark. The myth that these two flagship birds of open habitat cannot thrive in conifer plantations was slain last century. Provided conifers are arranged in blocks representing a range of tree and stand development (from new plantings to mature trees), then these birds do just as well as they would on open habitat such as lowland heathland.

On this subject Sir William Worsley said: “We do listen to other people. We don’t always agree with the RSPB, but we do try and listen and we do try to get it right, and we do have a consultation process.”


Forestry Journal:  Ammunition for those who want to see new planting halted. Common alder seedlings colonising damp set-aside land adjacent to a plantation of common alder planted on a landfill site. But of course this would not be happening if the common alder had not been planted 20 years previously. Ammunition for those who want to see new planting halted. Common alder seedlings colonising damp set-aside land adjacent to a plantation of common alder planted on a landfill site. But of course this would not be happening if the common alder had not been planted 20 years previously. (Image: Supplied)

However, all this was not enough for Ed Ikin who according to the article thinks the very best solution is not tree planting at all, but that existing woodlands, provided they are afforded protection from the farmer’s plough, deer and livestock, restock the country all on their own. He explained that for all sorts of reasons such woodlands are likely to be better suited to the local environment and far more resilient: “They tend to be fairly diverse in structural diversity, biologically diverse and because they will be starting with quite a holistic relationship to the environment.” 

Government tree-planting targets do not discriminate between ‘semi-natural broadleaf woodland’ and conifer plantations for timber. On this point the article reports Mr Ikin as saying how the kind of environment which would allow a patchwork of such woodlands (apparently by regeneration and natural expansion of existing woodland), peat bogs and grasslands to thrive would require a return to a kind of “medieval landscape” in terms of its nature and forest cover, and clearly requiring a completely different mind-set. There was no reported riposte from the FC.

And there you have it, the case against conifers and indeed any new tree planting at all delivered in one fell swoop and presented in a leading and widely read national newspaper. This is just the tip of the iceberg of newspaper articles and TV programmes in this vein, prominent in the national media. This was a well-written article which almost certainly had a significant impact on the many tens thousands of people out there who read it.

Having eaten away at confidence in conifers in England, the worms are now chewing up confidence in commercial conifers north of the border. This is a view reinforced by the latest Forest Research poll suggesting support for commercial forestry is falling in Scotland – a situation described as “sobering” by Confor. 

Politicians do not necessarily do things which are right for the country, often preferring to push policies which boost their chances at the ballot box. This has already happened in England, where the UK government, despite its rhetoric, is paying heed to the inclinations of voters in suburban England whose views on commercial conifer forestry are firmly made up in opposition. On a separate note, but clearly related, is how the forestry industry needs to up its game with a more forceful and aggressive advocacy to counter this sort of information, indeed misinformation, and argument.

READ MORE: UK's tree-planting rates fall to lowest levels in five years

Recently released forestry statistics showing a significant fall in conifer planting in Scotland during the last planting year are no figment of the imagination, with net effects felt in England.

David Gwillam, owner and operator of Prees Heath Forest Nurseries in Shropshire, does not sell directly to estates in Scotland, but traditionally supplies significant quantities of conifer planting material to forest nurseries in Scotland. He told Forestry Journal: “This aspect of our trade dried up last season. In total we were left with 500,000 unsold trees, around half of which were conifers.” 

He added that this was a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared with at least two other nurseries he knows of, which were left high and dry with two million unsold conifers.