Why Trees? Tree Planting in the UK

As a landscape and ecology consultancy we are big fans of trees

Trees are great for biodiversity, Ancient woodland in particular supports more species than any other land-based habitat in the UK. They are great for structure in landscape planting schemes, they can help new developments respond to local character, provide shading and cooling where needed and are useful for screening development to minimise visual intrusion.

Trees have also been identified as a tool in the war against climate change.  Trees store carbon because they use CO2 in the process of photosynthesis to feed their growth.  Woodland soil is rich in organic materials, accounting for nearly 75% of the UK’s forest carbon stock.  All this means that UK woodland and forestry is effectively a net carbon sink.

Tree Planting Targets and schemes

Sadly, the UK has a long history of deforestation and today tree cover in the UK is far lower than its closest neighbours – just 13% compared to the European average of 38%.

This trend has not gone unnoticed and the recent emphasis on ecological and climate emergencies has led to setting of targets by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which is the Government’s official climate advisory body.  The CCC’s Net-Zero Report, published in 2019, noted that previous afforestation targets are not being delivered.  In his 10-point climate plan outlined in November 2020, Boris Johnson re-emphasised the Conservative manifesto aim to plant 30,000 hectares of new forest a year across the whole of the UK by 2050.

The Government has consulted on the England Tree Strategy and announced a number of tree-planting schemes in England to help meet its 30,000-hectare annual target, including:

  • The Green Recovery Challenge Fund allocated almost £40m to 68 projects to plant more than 800,000 trees, including 10,000 trees at 50 NHS sites and 12 “tiny forests” the size of a tennis court in urban areas.
  • £12.1m government investment in plans for 500 hectares of trees to be planted in 10 community forests.
  • £4m to fund innovative tree-planting in towns and cities and near rivers to reduce flood risk.

There are also woodland creation grants available to private landowners to plant trees including commercial timber crops and the new ELM Scheme proposals are also likely to support steps towards meeting tree planting targets.

There are some that argue that natural regeneration or ‘rewilding’ is the way forward, allowing trees and woodland to regenerate through the natural dispersal of seeds. Rewilding Britain asserts that natural regeneration brings the most benefits for biodiversity, is cost-effective and may sequester more carbon than previously thought.  Natural regeneration is not, however, currently supported by any targeted funds.

Which trees?

In its “Emergency Tree Plan”, the Woodland Trust states that “…the majority of tree cover expansion should be delivered with native woods and trees, due to the importance of tackling the nature and climate crises together.”  This is a very sensible approach as it is important to use native species of local provenance when planting trees in order to deliver tree planting that will thrive and that will maximise benefits for biodiversity.

Every opportunity for tree planting is also an opportunity to meet wider socioeconomic goals via delivery of ecosystem services such as flood regulation, carbon sequestration, resource production, creation of SANGs and air quality regulation (particularly particulate matter).  The species/species mix selected should be influenced by these needs.

The CCC’s recommends a woodland creation ratio of 60:40 broadleaf to conifers. The CCC noted that “planting requires both productive conifers and standing broadleaved woodland.”  Whilst broadleaves are slow growing species, they tend to have denser wood that can ultimately lock in more carbon than softwood, coniferous species. Furthermore, broadleaved woodland tends to be left to grow for much longer than commercial conifers which are harvested, and therefore will continue absorbing carbon for decades.

Consideration should also be given to tree species that are resilient to disease (sadly the UK’s tree stock is currently subjected to a number of afflictions, such as ‘ash dieback’) and to the effects of climate change.

Where will the trees be planted?

An important question and one that requires careful thought.

The CCC’s target is to raise forest cover to 17% in 2050, up from 13% today.  To deliver this, circa  0.9m-1.5m hectares of new woodland needs to be planted. To help visualise the area required, 1 ha is approximately the same area as an international rugby union pitch.  That’s a huge area of land and identifying space of this scale of planting is going to be challenging, with compromises needed between competing land uses and societal needs.

As around 70% of the UK’s land area is farmland, it seems likely that some of this would need to be converted to woodland to meet the target.  It is likely that lower quality grazing land will be first in line but the best place to plant woodland is areas that historically supported this system, including extension/replanting of current/degraded woodland blocks.  Woodland planting that helps to connect habitats across the landscape will also aid biodiversity recovery.  In any case, farmers will need to be compensated for the loss of agricultural earnings so sustainable woodland management (e.g. coppicing) should be considered.

What can we do?

Whilst there is clearly a need for large scale projects, every little helps and there are a number of offerings out there including the ‘One Tree Per Child Scheme’, and offers of ‘free trees for schools and communities’ from the Woodland Trust.

In terms of development, the Interface with planning and policy is clear.  There is an increasing emphasis from the Government on integration of trees within development, with and proposed alterations to the National Planning Policy Framework that include a new paragraph (130) requiring that “planning policies and decisions should ensure that new streets are tree-lined, that opportunities are taken to incorporate trees elsewhere in developments (such as community orchards), that appropriate measures are in place to secure the long-term maintenance of newly-planted trees, and that existing trees are retained wherever possible. Applicants and local planning authorities should work with local highways officers and tree officers to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right places.”  The Planning White Paper also makes (albeit limited) reference to the need for new streets to be tree lined and for spatial policies that identify opportunities for woodland/forestry creation.

In more immediate terms, there is already a plethora of adopted Development Plan support for tree planting and replacement, with different Authorities adopting different methods for implementation, from tree replacement standards to canopy calculations.  Tree planting can also contribute to Biodiversity Net Gain Calculations.

Though no “silver bullet” for the climate crisis, tree planting certainly part of the mix and is one way in which the UK can work towards meeting its goal reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050 whilst also delivering wider ecosystem services and benefits.

At Landmark, we believe in sustainable development that balances commercial and design needs, whilst maximising the value of wildlife and habitat.  Need advice on embedding tree planting into your project? Please contact Andy Spargo on enquiries@thelandmarkpractice.com