How can changes to woodland creation grants be an opportunity for landowners?

Forestry lead at the CLA Graham Clark reviews some key recent developments of the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) and explains what it means for members
Bradford Estates forest

In recent months, there have been a few changes to the grant rates and process around the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO), the Forestry Commission’s flagship tree planting scheme aimed at private landowners.

Changes to EWCO grant rates

There are several elements to consider for payments under the EWCO:

  • A capital grant for the cost of trees, planting and protection – paying on ‘national average’ rates per sapling/tree shelter/metre length of fencing
  • Annual maintenance payments per hectare
  • Contributions of 40 – 100% to the actual costs of infrastructure, like access tracks to help establish the woodland and manage it in the future
  • Optional Additional Contributions (ACs) for delivering specified public benefits through the location and design of the new woodland. For example for nature recovery, better water quality or permissive access

To remain competitive with rates announced in January for other land uses under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS), some of the payments available under EWCO were increased in March. The maximum £10,200/ha capital payment is unchanged but the annual maintenance payment has been raised from £350/ha to £400/ha. This follows an extension of the duration of these maintenance payments from 10 to 15 years announced in November 2023.

Two new payments have also been added. A new ‘Nature Recovery Premium’ AC (£3,300/ha) – to create highly biodiverse new woodlands next to ancient woodlands – has been introduced, along with a further new payment of £1,100/ha for planting on ‘low sensitivity land’ (see below).

Most of the existing ACs rates have also risen. A table of rates is available but ACs are now potentially worth a further £11,600 on top of the capital and maintenance grant – however this depends on what specific benefits the location and design of the new woodland delivers.

Woodland Creation Fast Track

There is quite a bit involved in planning a new woodland. Various land constraints must be worked around and consultation is also needed which generates issues which need to be addressed in designing the proposal. Getting regulatory consent from the Forestry Commission for the woodland and approval for grants can take many months and the CLA and others have long said that the process is in need of streamlining.

Partly in response to this, Forestry Commission (FC) announced in March a new EWCO Woodland Creation Fast Track process. There are strict criteria but if they are met, FC say it will make regulatory decisions and grant offers within 12 weeks. The Fast Track process will only apply to proposals which are:

  • Within a ‘low sensitivity area’ for woodland creation
  • Compliant with the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS)
  • Completed correctly and contain all the information FC need to make decisions

To help with the fast track process, FC have recently developed sensitivity maps based on various national datasets to indicate where there are constraints to woodland creation. These include areas of deep peat, important breeding bird habitats, areas of better quality agricultural land, designated landscapes and many others. ‘Low sensitivity areas’ are designated where there are no clear constraints based on the national data. It should be easier to agree on creating new woodland in these areas – and to encourage more woodland creation in these areas, the new Low Sensitivity Land payment has been made available.

The UK Forestry Standard is the standard for sustainable forestry practice across the UK. It sets out the legal and good practice requirements of forestry practice along with guidance on how they can be met. UKFS compliance ensures forestry proposals take proper account of biodiversity, climate change, historic environment, landscape, people, water and soil issues. All woodland creation proposals must be UKFS compliant to get publicly funded grants.

What do these changes mean for landowners?

Most holdings have some less productive areas which, in a post direct payments era, may be better suited to woodland. Depending on the specifics, a new woodland could improve the amenity of the site, perhaps provide better shelter and a future supply of timber for the farm.

It is for the individual landowner to decide, but the grants for woodland creation have never been better. With the capital grant and capitalised maintenance payment, £15,000/ha will often be possible – although bear in mind trees and protection have to be bought up front and the EWCO grant then ‘refunds’ this once claimed.

Additional Contributions and the Low Sensitivity Land payment could boost grants further, although in reality it will be rare for a new woodland to be able to deliver all the specified public benefits and access all ACs. Although, the majority of proposals should be able to hit at least one or two criteria, and well-located sites with the right design may be able to deliver several, achieving overall grant levels of £20,000/ha or more (though these are effectively one-off, not annual sums).

The Fast Track process and low sensitivity maps are a welcome development, but landowners should be aware that it does not loosen the regulatory controls over where woodland can go, nor does it reduce the need for consultation over the location and design of a new woodland. What it effectively does is put the onus on the landowner to get all these things right themselves early on before they apply for the EWCO. Missing information or issues which left unaddressed will likely mean the Forestry Commission will ‘stop the clock’ while they go back to the applicant to seek any missing information.

It is also important to say that EWCO applications are still possible with the new ‘low sensitivity areas’ – they will just not be eligible for the fast track assessment process.

Planning a new woodland is an iterative process, with the final design often being different to the initial one and the details shaped by issues identified through investigation of the site and consultation with interested parties. FC will expect evidence that proportionate consultation has taken place and how it has shaped the proposal that has been put before them.

While there can be a lot of work involved, a well-planned woodland can give the landowner many years of benefit and pleasure. FC have produced a useful guide to planning new woodland and there is lots of other useful advice on the government woodland creation overview page and on the CLA website, including the helpful guidance note below.

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Key contact:

Graham Clark
Graham Clark Senior Land Use Policy Adviser, London