Our changing woodlands

As our climate changes, how well does your tree species portfolio read, asks Royal Forestry Society chief executive Simon Lloyd.

Woodland owners are familiar with managing risk and uncertainty. However, the scale of environmental change experienced over the past 25 years and expected over the next 50 presents a challenge of an altogether different order of magnitude. It is likely to require fundamental changes to accepted forestry management practice to ensure trees are adapted to projected environmental conditions.

In September the forestry sector came together to publish the ‘Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation of Forests, Woods and Trees in England’.

The plan identifies priority actions across policy, research and practice which need to be addressed over the next five years if we are to make real progress in building greater resilience into our woodlands:

  • Policy It is vital that climate change adaptation is fully integrated into the environmental land management system that will replace Countryside Stewardship and other grants post-Brexit. Under the forestry sector’s action plan, the CLA is taking a leading role in advocating policies in collaboration with other forestry organisations.
  • Research There is world class research on climate change impacts on trees and woodland taking place in the UK. However, we still need more clarity on the genetic resistance of native and commercially important species against current and emerging diseases. Tree planting is not using enough genetically-diverse stock which is constraining adaptive potential and we lack evidence of the impact of connectivity on species migration and the spread of pests and pathogens. Well-funded research on these topics is essential.
  • Practice Woodland owners and managers need the knowledge, skills and confidence to make well-informed decisions on how to adapt woods to projected climate change impacts. We can no longer plant many of the commonly used tree species that are subject to disease such as ash, larch and Corsican pine or rely on species such as oak and beech which are vulnerable to damage by grey squirrels. We are advised to diversify the palette of species – portfolio planting – but what do we plant instead? Decision support tools like the Ecological Site Classification (ESC) are helpful but not a substitute for judgement. It is recognised that greater provision of training on forest design, forest soils, continuous cover management and species selection is required.

There is evidence that owners and managers are listening and beginning to adapt their woodlands. A recent insight survey of RFS members who are landowners or woodland managers and forestry professionals revealed that half of those who responded were already planting a wider palette of trees than just five years ago. Of those who were not, more than 60% were planning to and a further 22% were not yet sure. Only 14% were not considering planting more species.

Of those who are planting a more diverse range of species in the past, more than 54% said it was costing them about the same as before. No two survey respondents are planting the same palette of alternative species and a wide range of conifer and broadleaved species was mentioned.

As the forestry sector’s action plan is implemented and the outcomes widely shared over the next five years it should become ever easier for woodland owners to both choose a wider range of species to meet management objectives, and to source them.

Our woodlands are too important to leave to chance. For woodland owners the time to start building diversity is now. The action plan is an opportunity for the forestry sector to work together with clearly identified deliverables which will benefit all woodland owners.

[Box] Simon Lloyd is chief executive of the Royal Forestry Society and chairman of the Forestry Climate Change Working Group which launched a Forestry Sector Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan at APF 2018. The CLA is part of the Working Group and is represented on it by Mike Seville.

Find out more

To read the Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation of Forests, Woods and Trees in England go to www.rfs.org.uk and search for ‘climate change action plan’.