Voices of Forestry brings analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures from across the forestry industry. Sharing his views this month is Christopher Williams, recently appointed chief executive of the Royal Forestry Society. With a background in land management and environmental conservation, Christopher is in no doubt about the threat posed by climate change – or of the crucial importance of forestry in combatting it.

I was delighted and honoured to be appointed to my role at the Royal Forestry Society (RFS) earlier this year. After 30 years in nature conservation, I have been given a golden opportunity to make a positive difference in a related but different sphere; forestry. The RFS will be 140 years old next year, and the society is proudly the longest-established forestry body in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The rich history of the society was built, and continues to be enriched, by a long list of eminent foresters and silviculturists. I feel strongly that our collective task as a sector is to build on the achievements of those who went before us. We do that best by making wise choices which will serve those who will eventually step into our own shoes. 

Everyone reading this will know that forestry, not unlike nature conservation, is a very long-term venture; a cross-generational endeavour. It takes a special mind-set to understand that the results of your work will be largely reaped by your successors. It is easy to see how policymakers can struggle to fathom that depth of time, when their scope is more likely to be tuned to an election cycle.

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Forestry is also a technical discipline which takes a lifetime to master, making it hard for those outside of the field to decipher its value or its needs. Perhaps for these reasons, forestry has not always enjoyed the same degree of interest as other parts of the land economy from our policymakers.

Thankfully, there has been a growing appreciation of forestry’s true value in terms of the public goods it can provide and its role and potential in helping to realise a genuine circular economy. We must take full advantage of this refreshed interest. We must make sure that the current trajectory of increasing the area of forest cover continues and accelerates. We are still well behind the European average of around 40 per cent of land area being forested, from the current UK level of about 13 per cent, a figure inflated significantly by the picture in Scotland.

I am just about young enough to remember climate change being discussed while I was still at school. Back in the 1980s, the issue was not taken as seriously, and it certainly did not trigger any investment in our national forest resource as a nature-based solution.

Forestry Journal: Our forests are so important Our forests are so important

Those with vested interests tried to challenge and debunk the growing evidence base.

There is now little debate about the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, and the issue is not whether we need to act, but whether we can do so quickly enough. I believe reversing our impact upon the climate is the single most important issue of our times, and investing in forestry, making a permanent shift for the long term, is the single best solution before us. This is supported by numerous studies which show the high levels of carbon stocks typically achieved in the soil and in the trees themselves in forested land, when compared with other habitats.

We need our forests to be productive, to grow quality timber to reduce our dependence on imports. Unless we do that, we are effectively and invisibly exporting a significant part of our carbon footprint. Around 40 per cent of our existing woodland is either unmanaged or undermanaged, which means we are badly neglecting our existing forest resources. I really hope future incentives, for example through the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, can serve us better than previous programmes and help get more woods into management.

We need widespread adoption of good silvicultural practice to make our woods and forests more resilient to a changing climate and the associated pests and diseases.

Managing them more proactively should also make them more structurally diverse, which should help address losses in biodiversity. We must also make sure we design-in recreation and provide spaces for people to unwind and to connect with their environment. Forests are perfect places to help with people’s wellbeing, an issue brought into clearer focus through the COVID pandemic. Most of all though, we need a small and diverse army of people to join us, to be inspired by these opportunities, to make forestry their career. 

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The RFS is committed to pushing hard on all these fronts, working with partners across the sector who wish for the same outcomes. Some of this change we can do ourselves, but we do rely on policymakers to create the conditions and incentives for us to thrive as a sector. 

Finally, I would encourage anyone reading this who is not already a member of the RFS to join us. We welcome everyone involved across all disciplines of forestry and we work hard for our members’ interests and offer a wide range of benefits. The more members we have, the stronger and more effective we become. If this is of interest, we would really like to hear from you.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.