Talking trees

The CLA is involved in discussions to help shape future strategies for woodlands and forestry, including tree planting programmes and future agricultural policies
Outline of a tree in sunlight

These are interesting times for woodland and forestry policy across England and Wales. Governments in Westminster and Cardiff have set ambitious targets for tree planting to help reach net zero emissions by 2050 and woodland strategies and land management schemes are in development in both countries. Against this, a recent survey of Britain’s woodland owners has revealed interesting insights into the awareness, actions and aspirations among the forestry sector to environmental change.

Strategies and schemes

A major consultation took place over the summer to help Defra formulate a new Tree Strategy for England, which we expect in spring 2021. The CLA submitted a full response based on discussions at branch and national committees over the past year. A Woodlands for Wales strategy is already in place (last revised in 2018), but future support for woodlands in Wales is uncertain - much depends on the outcome of the ‘Sustainable Farming & Our Land’ consultation and a white paper in the next Senedd term setting out Welsh Government’s plans for agriculture and the rural economy.

In England, Defra’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which will incentivise delivery of land-based public goods - including those from trees and woodlands - continues to be designed with ongoing input from the CLA and other stakeholders. A three-year national pilot is due to start in 2021, with the scheme opening fully in 2024. A key issue to be decided is the detail of how activities like woodland creation and management will fit into the overall three tier structure proposed by Defra.

Certainty is also lacking on the details on funding for woodland between now and 2024 when ELMs opens to all. The Chancellor announced at the spring 2020 Budget a £640m Nature for Climate Fund to protect, restore and expand woodlands in England over the lifetime of the current Parliament (until 2024) – but at the time of writing, few details had been made public. It seems likely this fund will be used to expand woodland activity over the next few years, largely through existing Countryside Stewardship and Forestry Commission schemes.

Development of a new Sustainable Land Management (SLM) framework to provide stability for Welsh farmers, foresters and land managers, continues. However, no firm decisions have been taken and plans for SLM are not as far advanced as those for ELMs are in England, including how woodland creation and management will fit in.

England Tree Strategy: Key CLA asks

Defra’s consultation documents for the England Tree Strategy were extensive and many issues were covered in the CLA’s response.

Some key points include:

  • Retention and proper resourcing of the Forestry Commission is key to ensure it is up to the task of efficiently administering future woodland grants and regulatory work.
  • Simplification and proportionality are needed in future woodland funding schemes and regulation - a key reason for low uptake of woodland grants, especially Countryside Stewardship - is the complexity of the process.
  • Clarity is needed about how woodland creation and management will be encouraged through ELMs.
  • More attractive payment rates may be needed to get landowners to consider woodland creation, particularly at smaller scales where costs are prohibitively high (current rates are proving an insufficient incentive - see woodland targets box).
  • Better support for woodland management is needed as well as for creation, particularly for smaller woodlands which lack economies of scale, and incentives need to last until at least year 20 and not end at years five or 10 as currently do.
  • Growing domestic commercial markets for woodland products is crucial in driving woodland creation, management and our woodland economy – timber, woodfuel and the new market for woodland carbon to offset emissions should all be nurtured (the UK currently imports 80% of its timber).
  • Carbon is still locked up for decades when wood is used in construction. End uses for timber should be reflected in net zero accounting and this would act as an additional driver to encourage use of domestic wood in construction.
  • The ‘permanence requirement’ when creating woodland should be reconsidered for agroforestry and planting smaller farm woodlands where it acts as a deterrent. Relaxation of the current minimum 3 ha area for woodland creation grants and flexibility on width requirements will encourage more small-scale tree planting.
  • Proper resourcing and support are needed to assist landowners deal with the massive problem of Ash dieback and other tree diseases. Farmers and landowners need access to better advice on business opportunities involving trees and woodland.

The 2020 British Woodlands Survey

The results from a multi-partner project, led by Sylva Foundation and funded by the Forestry Commission, make for interesting reading A total of 1,055 people responded, 74% of whom were woodland owners or agents, representing 71,000 ha or 3% of Britain’s privately owned woodland area. There are many interesting findings, but key ones include:

  • In 2020, respondents were more aware of environmental change than at the time of the previous 2015 survey.
  • There were significant increases in observations of threats from drought, fire and pathogens.
  • Most woodland owner respondents (69%) did not have a UK Forestry Standard compliant management plan in place.
  • Most respondents said they did not intend to expand tree cover in the next five years - mostly due to lack of available land, though complexity of rules relating to grants was also a factor.

This last finding in particular corresponds with the CLA’s call for greater simplicity in grant schemes and perhaps suggests that if government tree planting targets are to be achieved, significant changes to the current rules will have to be made.

Woodland targets & woodland creation in 2019/20

UK woodland creation in 2019/20 was 13,700 hectares (ha) with the majority in Scotland according to Forestry Commission figures. Only 2,300 ha was created in England and only 80 ha in Wales – far short of what the government now wish to see (30,000 ha across the UK by 2025). The target for Wales is at least 2,000 ha annually from 2020. No specific target has been set for England, but Defra says the most that could be achieved would be 10,000 ha per year. The highest rate created in England was 6,500 ha in 1971 when policy and financial incentives provided greater support.