Will England’s Tree and Peat Action Plans help us to tackle climate change AND recover nature?

Ali Morse and Barnaby Coupe explore what England's Tree and Peat Action Plans mean for nature.

Included in the suite of announcements made last week by the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, were two key publications: the England Peat Action Plan and the England Trees Action Plan.

Billed as key solutions in the fight against climate change, these documents will form chapters of the Government’s Nature Strategy, setting out how we can recover nature, manage land sustainably, and connect people with the environment – in line with the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan.

With the right policies, work on peatlands and trees could deliver significant benefits for biodiversity as well as climate – but do these plans pass the test?

The England Peat Action Plan

Our overarching hope for the Peat Action Plan was that it would set out ambitious targets for peatland restoration. When in poor condition, peat soils are a net source of CO2, releasing back to the atmosphere the carbon that has been accumulating for hundreds or even thousands of years. But in wet, healthy condition, they hold on to the carbon, keeping it locked away - and also absorb floodwaters, deliver clean water supplies, and provide fantastic habitat for a host of rare and unusual species. Restoration is the key to securing these benefits, but many peat soils are currently farmed or afforested, whilst other peatland sites have been degraded by burning or peat extraction.

The Wildlife Trusts want to see a commitment to restoring all upland peatlands and at least a quarter of lowland peats.

Government’s own advisors, the Climate Change Committee, say this needs to happen to reduce net carbon emissions to zero. In our view it’s also imperative to allow nature to recover, across a network of peat bogs and fens that are part of a landscape where 30% of land is protected and managed for nature.

Government have committed more than £50m through the Nature for Climate Fund to restore 35,000ha of peatland by 2025. This is a promising start, but in England we need to restore around 10 times that to meet the committee’s recommendations. This should include all SSSIs, a large portion of which are currently in poor condition. These longer-term targets are missing from the Action Plan – but Government have said they will set out plans for peatland restoration that are in line with those required to meet carbon budgets.

Peat extraction site, Lancashire (Matthew Roberts)

Peat extraction site, Lancashire (Matthew Roberts)

We wanted to see a reduction in the practices that damage peatlands

Drainage dries out peat soils allowing CO2 to escape, so must be reduced to help arrest climate change. There are no new policies to drive a reduction in drainage and, despite positive words, no commitment to supporting farmers in a transition to wetter farming. A Lowland Agricultural Peat Taskforce has, however, been set up to look at this issue, as the plan does recognise that ‘conventional agricultural production on drained peatlands is inherently unsustainable’. 

We also wanted to see better protection for our precious peatlands. Burning is a much-debated management practice but one which scientific opinion largely considers to be damaging. A ban on all peatland burning would prevent future site degradation, but new laws brough in earlier this year implement a ban only on internationally-protected sites, and offer a number of exemptions. Whilst the ban is a step in the right direction, it must not be considered as ‘job done’, as the majority of peatlands could still be subject to ongoing damage through burning.

Peat compost

We wanted to see Government leadership in the sale of peat compost

Extraction from peat from bogs both here and abroad continues, all to provide gardeners with a growing medium that could be replaced by more sustainable products, or by home composting. This must end, yet despite failed voluntary targets to phase out peat, Government has not yet committed to action. The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a ban on peat compost sales - so far supported by over thirty thousand people - and an end to the use of peat in horticulture altogether by 2025. Instead, disappointingly, Government will be consulting on what steps to take next - although a ban will feature as one of the more decisive options within the consultation. We want to see legislation in place to ban the sale of peat composts before the Government hosts key climate talks, COP26, in November this year.

The England Trees Action Plan

Tackling climate change and protecting biodiversity are intrinsically linked: seeking to maximise one at the cost of the other will ultimately fail on both counts. We have concerns that the Trees Action Plan could inadvertently hinder rather than help nature in a drive to plant trees to achieve ambitious tree planting targets.

The Government’s commitments to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 ha per year are primarily driven by the ambition to reach net zero by 2050. The Tree Action Plan sets an ambition to increase tree planting in England to 7,000 ha each year, but in 2019-20 just 2,330 ha of new forest was planted in England. Meeting the Government’s commitments for woodland expansion will require a significant step change in woodland creation which, whilst welcome and necessary, is not without risk.

The Wildlife Trusts hold the position that the right tree be planted in the right place.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies, guided by the Nature Recovery Network, will be an important tool in putting this into practice, as our response to the England Tree Strategy Consultation set out. The Trees Action Plan states that Local Nature Recovery Strategies can play an important role in identifying suitable locations for tree planting. While this is positive as it speaks to the ‘right place’ part of tree planting, the Plan provides no further detail on how this will work in practice or how non-woodland habitats will be protected. This leads us to have some serious concerns about the implementation of the plan. 

While trees play an important role in absorbing carbon emissions, nature will suffer if the Plan creates incentives to plant trees on land which is not suitable – and there are currently no safeguards in the Plan to ensure that this doesn’t happen. The climate and ecological crises must be tackled together: new woodlands must help nature by filling in the gaps and joining the dots between existing woodlands, and avoid planting on other precious habitats such as peatlands and wildflower meadows.

Coniferous plantation

Despite promises from Defra and the Forestry Commission, in the last year irreplaceable peat soils were ploughed up in Cumbria, and conifers replanted on key areas for potential heathland recovery in Dorset. Ploughing up high nature-value habitats and planting rows of non-native conifers, comes at huge cost to nature, in a short-sighted drive to increase tree cover.

We want to see the Trees Action Plan deliver for nature and people, as well as the climate. A carefully planned approach to expanding and creating new woodlands is essential – guided by a Nature Recovery Network – to create more, bigger, joined-up woods, thriving with wildlife and accessible to people. We will continue to press Defra on these points as they move to the next stage of implementing the plan.

Trees vs peat?

Producing these two documents in tandem gave the Government the opportunity create alignment on some potentially tricky issues. Will the demand for tree saplings for planting projects lead to an increase in use of peat compost as a growing medium? Will sites that could be restored to bog or fen, locking in carbon for the long-term, instead be given over to short-term tree planting in the scramble to meet afforestation targets? And will the plans ensure that activity benefits climate and nature, rather than one at the other’s expense?

On the latter, the jury is still out – there remains a risk that global climate targets could drive perverse outcomes for biodiversity, so this is an area that environmental organisations will pay close attention to. On tree planting, the Peat Action Plan at least acknowledges that there are current gaps in the decision-making framework that need to filled, so again, another area to watch. And there is no mention in either document of the environmental credentials of the saplings that will help us to meet these large tree planting targets. 

Moreover, if words are to be matched by action, funding to help deliver against both plans will of course be needed. Of the £640 million available through the Nature for Climate Fund, £500 million has been pledged to support the delivery of the Tree Action Plan, with the money pledged for peatland recovery forming a much smaller portion of available funding – perhaps because for some, the protection and restoration of peatlands remains a contentious topic.

The final say

Our verdict? Overall, the England Peat Action Plan provides a promising start but could do much more to meet our tests on peatland restoration, drainage, burning and peat compost. While the England Trees Action Plan does include some significant positives including more support for natural regeneration, it fails to set out how high-value open habitats, and areas where these habitats could potentially be restored and connected, will be adequately protected from inappropriate tree planting. 

Both documents herald a significant start, although fall short of the ambitious commitments needed to halt climate chaos and restore biodiversity. We are assured, though, that ‘more is to come’, in implementation plans, target-tracking and future funding - so The Wildlife Trusts look forward to working with Government, business, landowners and others to help deliver – and to go beyond – the ambitions set out in the England Trees and Peat Action Plans.