Delivering the keynote speech at this year’s Accelerating Woodland Creation & Management Conference, Edward Daniels, head of forestry for John Clegg & Co, said the implementation of bold and innovative ideas will be required if the government is to hit its tree-planting targets within the timeframe that has been set out in the recent England Tree Action Plan. Presented here is an abridged version of his speech.

THE scale of the challenge is enormous.

In 2009, the Read Report, part of the government response to the IPCC’s 2007 climate change report, suggested planting 23,000 hectares per annum for 40 years was required to produce a greenhouse gas abatement of 10 per cent by 2050. Twelve years later, we are falling short of that target by 10,000 ha/annum.

The current UK target of 30,000 ha/annum was published in the Conservative manifesto in the 2019 election, and to be achieved by the end of this parliament, i.e. May 2024. So how are we doing? Not at all well!

To reach government targets we need to see planting at a scale not seen for 30 to 40 years. But we will not get there unless an honest discussion is had to enable the barriers to tree planting to be overcome. Financial capital is not lacking or difficult to raise for large-scale, well-designed, commercial forestry projects. Nor is the availability of finance a barrier to broadleaf woodland creation, thanks to a combination of grants and carbon income. The main barrier to unlocking future woodland creation is the availability of land for purchase and planting.

The economics of forestry cannot compete with arable farming, nor should it; high-quality and productive agricultural land is a precious resource. Food security quite rightly remains a government priority and no-one would argue that carbon sequestration or timber production should have priority access to prime agricultural land.

Forestry Journal: Edward Daniels.Edward Daniels.

Small-scale woodland creation does have a place in the lowlands and can enhance a farm or estate. On lowland farms, any woodland development is likely to be undertaken by owner occupiers but it will be small scale; it is hard to see how this alone will be able to achieve UK government targets. So where can larger-scale woodland creation happen?

Forestry is a long-term, capital-intensive business, with lumpy cash flows, which can be difficult to manage for small businesses or farms needing regular income.

There is also the issue of whether farmers or landowners want to do it. The challenge with woodland creation is that it represents permanent land-use change, and some farmers are uncomfortable with that.

Uncertainties surrounding agricultural regulation and support post Brexit have left farmers and agricultural advisers unable to make informed decisions about investment in or, conversely, the sale of land and farms. Until the full implications of the Agriculture Bill and the details of the new ELMS support mechanism are known, this situation is unlikely to improve.

The large-scale commercial afforestation achieved in the 1970s and ’80s has provided the foundations for a thriving home-grown timber industry, improving traceability of timber into the UK supply chain, reducing dependency on imports and reducing the carbon footprint of building materials.

But the negative impacts of large conifer plantations must also be acknowledged. Unsympathetic design of first-rotation plantations, afforestation of sensitive habitats and lack of integration of forestry into local communities has created a generalised antipathy to this type of afforestation which remains a barrier to new planting to this day.

We can argue some of this opposition is ill-informed but it is very unlikely a second wave of large-scale ‘coniferisation’ of the uplands along similar lines to the 1970s would be accepted by the public, farming communities, or wildlife bodies.

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Commercial forestry has been hostage to the type of land it has been restricted to. Poor, wet soils constrain forest planners to a very limited list of economically viable species. With more favourable economics, forestry may be able to move onto better land and thereby showcase a more diversified model of commercial forestry.

However, the scale of new planting required will need to contain a high percentage of these spruce forests, which are highly efficient at carbon sequestration and provide raw material for industry. We must address the issue of public perception if we are to capture these benefits and harness the private finance available.

There are legitimate concerns that large-scale forestry expansion may displace important wildlife, particularly ground-nesting and wading birds such as the charismatic curlew and the lapwing. Currently, potential land-use conflicts are addressed via long, slow, detailed consultations on a site-by-site basis. The lengthy process coupled with the uncertainty of outcome makes it very difficult to properly assess investment risk in advance of a land purchase. 

Some work is being done to map breeding bird habitats to allow a degree of pre-assessment of sites, but significant improvement in mapping is required if the rate of woodland expansion is to increase. It is somewhat ironic that we are caught in a conflict between the objectives of climate change mitigation and wildlife conservation.

Despite the many challenges to the much-needed acceleration in the rate of woodland creation, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. First is the fledgling woodland carbon market. For the first time in the modern era, a combination of grants and carbon income will allow large-scale planting of broadleaf and mixed woodlands to be carried out economically. This is a game changer in allowing a more diverse range of woodland types to be planted, creating an increase in forest cover in a manner more likely to find public acceptance.

Secondly, we now have a broader-based investment sector. Many large institutional investors are motivated to fund projects with demonstrable societal benefits, be they environmental or social, which allows a greater variety of woodlands and habitats to be created.

Thirdly, we are seeing imaginative new approaches to partnership working. The FC has done some work producing a legal contract framework to enable a shared equity approach to creating new forestry assets.

Finally, there are new online platforms such as that developed by the Forest Canopy Foundation. This is designed to link up landowners and potential investors. A type of forestry matchmaking! 

So what are the practical steps we need to implement to support tree planting on a small and large scale?

The first step must be to reconsider the whole approach to the regulation of planting. The England Tree Action Plan recognises the importance of regulation, but the processes do need to be improved and that should include looking at the EIA process.

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Secondly, we need to improve pre-screening of land to clearly identify wildlife constraints. Substantial investment in wildlife constraint mapping is needed to guide afforestation efforts away from the most sensitive sites and towards areas with a ‘presumption in favour’.

We would like to see a national publicity campaign to raise public awareness of the UK’s reliance on imported timber with the sustainability and traceability issues that entails. We must provide positive messaging on the merits of home-grown softwood timber and active woodland management. I believe we need a national conversation about land-use priorities and the need for large-scale landscape change if we are to meet the challenges of the coming decades in terms of food production, energy, wildlife, timber and carbon sequestration in our countryside.

We need to offer an attractive and engaging vision of how a more wooded landscape could look in areas of the UK which have been treeless for many centuries, and how that could deliver a more diverse economy and ecology.

We must be inclusive and bring the public with us to ensure that there is substantial change in thinking, which must include access as well.

We have an incredible opportunity to make a positive difference, which is unlikely to be repeated. In order to deliver these targets, we need bold and innovative ideas. We cannot afford to be too cautious.

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