The Wildlife Trusts’ response to the England Tree Strategy

Mark Hamblin 2020VISION

The England Tree Strategy is an opportunity for Defra to set out how trees and woods can play a role in tackling the climate and nature emergency through protecting, connecting, and expanding high nature-value habitats and planting the right tree in the right place.

The upcoming England Tree Strategy comes at a time when trees and woodlands are increasingly seen as a solution to the climate crisis, and it is easy to see how the Tree Strategy could focus on enabling the planting of large blocks of fast-growing non-native conifers for the purpose of capturing carbon and providing timber for sustainable building materials.

However, we are also in the midst of a nature emergency – an emergency which will have a profound impact on our environment. We cannot tackle the climate crisis without similar ambition to meet the nature crisis head on – the two are inseparable. To deal with the climate crisis, we must bring nature back on an ambitious scale.

Expanding tree and woodland cover in England has a huge role to play in helping rebuild ecological networks, deliver nature’s recovery, and tackling the climate crisis. Trees and woodlands in England can play a key part in realising the Wildlife Trusts’ vision of 30% of our land and sea in recovery for nature by 2030, but only if the England Tree Strategy embraces the following:

Creating space for Nature’s Recovery

While it is clear that more trees are needed in England, new trees and woodlands cannot be created at the expense of other existing habitats. Past drives to increase tree cover have shown us just how disastrous inappropriate planning for planting trees can be, with many of our upland peat bogs drained and planted with non-native conifers at high density – haemorrhaging biodiversity in these habitats and releasing tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Now, there is a risk that grassland habitats and scrubland mosaics important for plant and insect diversity will meet the same fate, and be planted up in what are seen as “quick wins” to increasing tree cover.

The Tree Strategy must ensure that areas of tree cover expansion are guided by a strategic spatial approach so that they can effectively create bigger, better, and more joined-up woodlands, thriving with wildlife, while ensuring protection of other vital habitats where tree planting may be ecologically damaging. For this to happen, new areas of trees and woods need to be guided by a Nature Recovery Network, bringing nature back into our landscape and back into our lives.

Couple walking down path through woodland

Ben Hall/2020VISION

Wild Woodlands

Simply planting trees in the ground will not create the diverse native woodlands we need to combat the dual climate and nature emergencies. Woodland ecosystems are diverse and dynamic environments which have developed over years, decades, and millennia. They contain complex ecological networks and relationships, both above ground and within the soils, between a huge array of diverse species.

Natural regeneration is the best way of creating new woodlands for wildlife, and expanding existing woodland, by embracing natural processes and allowing these ecosystems to develop and expand.

Not only is it more cost effective than planting up sites, trees established by regeneration are more likely to be better adapted to local climatic and environmental conditions and will result in woodlands with a more natural species and structural composition. It is critical that the Tree Strategy recognises the value of naturally regenerated woodland habitats in increasing England’s tree cover and nature’s recovery.

Protecting and improving what we have

While new trees and woodlands are undoubtedly needed to address the nature and climate emergencies, the UK’s existing woodland habitats must be better protected and managed for nature first. England’s existing trees and woodland are under threat from ecological decline, tree diseases and invasive pests, and widespread unsustainable development, resulting in less than 10% of our woods recognised as being in good ecological condition. The England Tree Strategy must set out how these will be better protected from damaging activities and invasive species, and how they will be better managed to deliver for nature into the future.

Fly Agaric (c) Neil Aldridge

Neil Aldridge

Woodlands for People

There is concern that significant proportions of the population, particularly children and young people, are ‘disconnected’ from the natural world. In the current context of a nation recovering from a global pandemic, there has never been a more crucial time to ensure that everyone has access to nature near where they live.

New areas of woodland expansion need to be spatially planned so that the many values of trees and woods are available to the people who need them most. Creating new woodlands and Community Forests through Local Nature Recovery Networks will ensure that woods are connected with people, providing communities opportunities to exercise, learn, and engage with nature on their doorstep.

An England Tree Strategy that embraces the above has the potential to ensure trees and woodlands in England deliver for nature, people, and the climate for years to come.