Could the government’s planting target be a springboard for more ambition?

As a special guest in our ‘Forests Report’ blog series, our Director of Woodland Creation shares his reaction to the Government’s promises for increasing woodland cover in England:

“For me the most eagerly anticipated part of the official Government response to the Independent Panel’s final report was going to be around woodland expansion. The Panel had recommended increasing tree cover in England from its current level of 10% to 15% by 2060 – would the Government support this level of ambition? The answer is a “maybe”. Government has accepted that 15% is a reasonable level to aim at but not within a specified time scale and have settled instead for a 12% target by 2060, equivalent to a planting rate of 5,000ha/annum. 

Government clearly recognises the benefits of more trees and woodland

On the one hand I find this quite disappointing in that this annual level of planting has been achieved in 9 of the 35 years between 1976 and 2010; on the other hand we haven’t achieved that level of planting since 2005 and in 2012 achieved only just over 50% of that target figure. I think it best to embrace the annual 5,000 ha target positively and show that it can be achieved – that might be a springboard for more ambition in future years?

There is much to applaud in the response around the subject of woodland expansion not least a clear recognition of the multiple benefits that an expanded cover can provide: be that for timber production, biodiversity, flood alleviation, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, health and public access. One of the things that the Trust needs to do now is to translate that into something that will inspire individual landowners – for example, talking to farmers about the ways in which new woodland can enhance productive farming rather than seeing woodland expansion as a threat to food security. 

The substantial increase in woodland creation grant rates last May have elicited an increase in interest in planting and shows the importance of finance in helping landowners take what is a very significant long term decision. It was good to see the potential recognised for new funding streams for woodland expansion – be that for carbon, water or other ecosystem services. Much more work does need to be done around this, not least in providing evidence to help quantify the benefits, and to ensure that payments for delivery of these services to the wider public go to the individual private landowners who are providing them. 

The Chalara (ash dieback) outbreak has been a huge wake up call for the industry. We need to think much more about the species and provenances we plant, how, why and where we plant, and when to encourage natural regeneration. We are going to need to be much better at longer term planning to give UK nurseries the chance to source the seed we want and grow it where we want. We all need to stop assuming that everyone recognizes the range of benefits that targeted tree and woodland planting offer and do more to get out there and tell them. I was struck by ICF President Fenning Welstead’s recent Christmas message “When did you last speak to a farmer and suggest that his flock might appreciate a bit of shelter?…. Too often foresters are guilty of talking to each other and not outsiders”. We need to ensure that it is as easy as possible for landowners who want to plant to be able to do so and it was great to see in the response a recognition of the need to lighten the application process burden by identifying areas where there is a presumption in favour of planting.

Yes, Chalara and other disease threats pose significant problems for forest expansion but I still feel hugely excited by the range of opportunities that targeted woodland creation can deliver both for individual landowners and society. The Government has recognized these benefits in its response, it is now up to ourselves and the wider industry to work together with the Government and show that they can be delivered.”

John Tucker, Director of Woodland Creation


Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series:


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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12 Responses to Could the government’s planting target be a springboard for more ambition?

  1. Pingback: Tree maintenance and survival | Woodland Matters

  2. Chris Gaskell says:

    Loving the posts, keep up the good work.

  3. Agnes Hall says:

    I am no sure anymore about ALL the problems of my beloved England and it’s Forests. But here in Australia they have Aborial Day, when everyone goes out to help planting trees which are disease-free.

    Maybe something like that could be done at home? As for the animals, we need most of them to help with the seeds. I’m not sure about the rabbit situation, but they are a true pest here!

    The trees are always planted where most of them have disappeared, with that also the animals. Also when new roads are being built, a lot of trees are cut down. What they do in that case is plant Indigenous shrubs where they can, along the new roads, as there are always areas which are open. This may not help with Forests, but it keeps the local plants in the area!

    Maybe something like this could be started by the People, and the Government will slowly but surely follow, once they see the success rate it has and how many people are taking part! Also try and get the local schools to take part, by keeping Lectures and why the Trees and Forests are so important! After all, once the Forests disappear, the birds and animals, etc. will follow! It’s all about the Ecosystem.

  4. thehutts says:

    Targets are fine but the mechanisms (Forestry Commission grants in this case) do need to be put in place to see that they are achieved.

    Also if funding and trees are given to community groups they also need educating to ensure they look after the trees that have been planted. Recently I have seen trees planted in a school grounds: this was followed by the only dry sunny period of the year last year. The trees suffered from a lack of watering (alongside trampling by children) and only a few still survive. I did go out and water some – particularly the birch tree that I relocated from an inappropriate place in our garden. The birch is doing well but it was bigger when it was planted.

    As to sourcing trees at the moment, farmers and communities need to be encouraged to grow their own trees from local seed. I have done this very successfully with acorns and have a number of oaks saplings that I have given to people to plant. 2 are waiting at my son’s school for planting out to celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary. There is some wonderful guidance available on the net for growing your own trees such as:

    Natural regeneration has to be the way forward for those that are worried about importing disease into a woodland by planting trees grown elsewhere. The trees will also have the best chance of survival as they are adapted to the local conditions. I believe that we need more ‘genguards’ (small 2m x 2m rabbit proof exclosures that can easily be installed and moved) to achieve this.

    • Clive Coles says:

      The Woodland grant mechanisms are in place Sally . The rates of grant are even fixed so has to make the planting of broadleaf species more attractive. But the desired rate of Woodland expansion is not being met.

      I do agree with you concerning the need to ensure there is a sustainable management plan in place. I too find that many school and small community woodland planting schemes start to fail once the initial enthusiasm to plant has faded. Each scheme needs a champion and some backup to sustain interest.

      The experience with the National Forest in Leicestershire is perhaps indicative of the problem. Much of the planting was initiated with Local Authority and community engagement but commitment dropped off. The scheme was pulled back from the brink when the Forestry Commission stepped up to manage the ongoing maintenance and development of the public woodlands.

      Localism is in my view a valuable way of getting folk to recognise the value of woodlands. The Jubilee Woodland initiative helped focus such attention, especially with children and families. But these schemes alone will not enable us to meet a planting rate of 5,000ha/annum.

      We need the Government to back up their endorsement of the Forestry Panel’s report with effectve action. I see the ongoing existence of a properly funded Forestry Commission as being central to the solution ~ the forestry focus will be lost if suggestions to split it up and merge it in with Natural England become reality. Funding will continue to be squeezed ~ we need therefore to see that it is spent wisely and not
      frittered away on short term initiatives which cannot be sustained.

      • thehutts says:

        I agree with you that we do not want to see the funding squeezed and we want to see more funding for the long term sustainable management of all our woodlands (old and new). As an environmental farm adviser I frequently see woodlands that have just been negelected. I do however think that the Forestsy Commission and Natural England need to work more closely together and maybe some sort of merger would help this and save money which could then be put into more woodland grants. Sally

        • Clive Coles says:

          I remain very wary of any move to merge Forestry Commission and Natural England given our experience in Suffolk. Forestry Commission seem unable ( or even unwilling) to stand up to Natural England when in comes to approving plans to deforest to create heathland.
          Sadly Natural England have a map of around 1905 which shows our County as being open heathland ( sheepwalks which supported the Wool trade). They appear to regard trees as invasive and are seeking to recreate the open landscape of 100 years ago.
          Environmental Impact Assessments are not being being done ~ woodland is being flattened with JCB’s and topsoil is being scraped off so destroying a complete food chain. This is vandalism ~ conservation gone mad. They are circumventing the very safeguards conservationalists strove to set up.
          NE justify this use of HLS grants as it is providing money to regenerate and extend heather heathland habitat. This is in line with accords that were signed at the Rio Conference.
          But, over the last 20 or so years, the expansion of heather heathland has been patchy. More often the area regenerates with a cover of bracken and bramble. Heather is not reestablishing ~ the heather that was already there is getting engulfed by the spread of bracken This is not what was promised when NE advocated this landscape transformation.
          The Wildlife Trust ( who are in partnership with NE,the RSPB and the Local Authority in the Sandlings) have tried various species of Sheep and Ponies to graze the bracken ~ these grazing experiments are failing. But they are still pressing on to remove even more tree cover. HLS funding is fueling this programme.
          I believe we need to find a way of curtailing the direction of HLS funding to failing heathland regeneration programmes if we are ever to make our woodland expansion targets. I will be surprised if NE will admit they were wrong in their assessment as to the viability of their Sandlings programme.
          A merger of FC and NE is a very risky approach ~ I fear the Forestry/Woodland focus will be lost.

          • thehutts says:

            We have the opposite problem up here in Northumberland. Our beautiful upland heath and blanket bog (both BAP Habitats) are being taken over by self seeded spruce trees planted by the Forestry Commission and their grants in sometimes inappropriate locations.
            Heathland is a successional habitat and without appropriate grazing, by the right sort of stock at the right time it will always be out competed by birch, bracken and rank grasses. Unfortunately the upland experimental farm in the county was closed by ADAS due to a reduction in government funding: it was doing some good research into appropriate grazing levels for different kinds of upland habitat. Heather can take over 20 years to respond to changes in livestock management.
            I personally don’t want to see wall to wall heather – no good for livestock or birds or ancient semi-natural woodland. Sally

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Sally, John has asked me to post for him – I agree with what you say, especially around the need for maintenance of young planting and management of existing woodland.

  5. Clive Coles says:

    I think access to grants is the key motivator for landowners and the increase in Woodland grant rates is to be welcomed. But “interest” has yet to be harnessed into effective action. In recent years we have consistantly failed to miss the woodland creation targets.

    The challenge we face ( certainly in East Anglia ) is that Natural England also seem to be directing HLS grants to Local Authorities and private landowners to deforest in order to extend heathland cover. The Government, through it’s funding agencies, is there giving a mixed message. It is trying to agree to every desirable environmental objective to “save the planet”. We seem to be allowing grant money to flow , mainly into private hands, whilst not really achieving the “aspiration”.

    I was disappointed, though not surprised, when the Government fell short of matching the Forestry panels ambition to expand woodland cover by 15%. When they launched their response to the Panel’s recommendations the news was well spun. They appeared to agree with everything the panel recommended. That’s politics. It’s only when they start to develop that response into policy and action that the realities start to be applied.

    Challenging times ahead ~ we are all going to have to be strong advocates of woodland creation if we are to succeed in matching even the reduced planting rate of 5,000ha/annum.

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Clive, John has asked me to post – I absolutely agree with your first closing statement about strong advocates for woodland creation being needed just to hit the 5,000ha target; what else do you think we can do that we aren’t already?

      • Clive Coles says:

        That’s a fair question ~ not so easy to provide a concise answer.

        As you will pick up from previous posts the availability and allocation of funding concerns me. Now a days grants and subsidies determine what we do and what we achieve. These drive agriculture, conservation, sport, and the arts ….. When the money flows there is a scramble across all sectors to apply before the opportunity is lost. But is this grant money being spent wisely and effectively? I believe we require better scrutiny of the complete grant allocation process and should be prepared to learn from failures.

        Funding is probably going to be increasingly curtailed ~ the western economies are in crisis. It is vital therefore that depleted funding is not frittered away on projects and initiatives that cannot or do not deliver. We also need to look carefully at the allocation of funding where there are conflicting objectives. We need a better way of achieving consensus as to what is best for the economy, the environment and the public good.

        I think the Forestry debate was a wake-up call for Government ~ the public has found voice. When it comes to the countryside and our landscape it’s not just the, politicians, landowners and NGO’s who have views. The public value their woodlands and forests. They provide areas which allow a multiplicity of different recreational and leisure pursuits ~ they enhance the well-being and heath of our nation.

        We must therefore continue to challenge and question what is being done “on our behalf”. But we must also be prepared to engage in the debate to establish that consensus and ( dare I suggest) be prepared to compromise.

        When you are within a campaigning organisation it is easy to be blinkered, and feel frustrated by the actions of others. I, for example, am annoyed to see woodlands being lost so as to create open heathland, especially when all we seem to get is a landscape covered in bracken and bramble. I also believe some recreational activities are damaging wildlife habitat and support attempts to control and mitigate this damage.

        There are others who campaign aggressively against the felling of woodlands due to infrastructure projects such as highway improvements, HS2 and the routing of underground or pylon supported power lines. Such projects do tend to require development and disruption along a linear path. If these infrastructure projects are to be developed it is inconceivable that this can be achieved without the loss of some existing woodlands. Some compromise may therefore be necessary.

        This of course is where the Woodland creation target is valuable as it provides a public focus where previously the aspiration was more hidden. I believe, where infrastructure developments destroy existing woodlands, the planning authorities should require the developer not only to reinstate surface damage and farmland but also to replant an equivalent woodland area in the proximity of any development. We need to be wary of the phrase “ the right tree in the right place”. It would not for example be acceptable to me to trade an increase of woodland cover in the Midlands for deforestation on the Suffolk Sandlings.

        I am always looking to enhance and develop the varied mosaic of our landscape. I do not support conservation inspired landscape transformation programmes that seek to replace existing habitats with a new “flavour of the month”. I am an evolutionist when it comes to landscape and habitat development.

        I am sure other folk will have differing views. But let’s become involved in the various consultations with Government and have that debate. The public voice must continue be heard.

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