Woodland creation the right way, in the right place for multiple environmental benefit

Energy & Climate Change, Flooding, Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

Woodland creation the right way, in the right place for multiple environmental benefit

Dense woodland

There is much discussion about the need for more trees in the UK, but how can we achieve this in the right places, in the right way, to deliver for climate, nature and society?

During the General Election at the end of 2019, parties made competing pledges to dramatically increase tree planting to help sequester carbon and contribute to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The Committee on Climate Change have indicated that 30,000ha of trees should be planted per year between now and 2050 to reach this target, amounting to nearly a million ha of new forest and woodland. They wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson post-election saying that urgent action must be taken in 2020 on:

“Introducing a world-leading package through the Agriculture and Environment Bills to cut emissions from agriculture and to pay for the 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of annual tree planting promised in your manifesto. We will offer specific policy recommendations on this in January.” And that:

“Climate change will exacerbate biodiversity loss in the UK and globally. Delivering on your manifesto commitments to create a Nature Climate Fund, increase tree planting and restore peatland will help to improve resilience and reduce emissions from land.”

The previous government in its 2018 25 Year Environment Plan made commitments to increase tree planting and “focusing on woodland to maximise its many benefits”. This now needs to be taken forward effectively and at scale. An English Tree Strategy is expected in spring 2020.

Since the election, many landowners and managers have – like our politicians – pledged to plant many millions of trees or thousands of ha in area of new woodland, by varying dates. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

However, with much of the current narrative focusing on planting numbers, less is focusing on how, where and whether: Should we be planting trees where appropriate but doing a whole lot more (or less, or entirely different) besides – to deliver the biggest range of societal and environmental benefits aside from carbon sequestration?

There have been initiatives aimed at incentivising forestry before, mainly in Scotland at any significant scale. Yet monocultural plantations – typically of conifers as much of such planting was – can actually release carbon into the atmosphere and deliver minimal if any wildlife value.

However, if done well, it is possible to create the forests we need to help deliver on carbon emissions reduction targets whilst also creating valuable wildlife habitat and achieving other benefits including reducing flood risk to communities on land further down river catchments.

This could be undertaken alongside far more extensive working with natural regeneration approaches, which may vary from removing small parcels of land from agricultural production and allowing natural succession to progress to woodland, to larger-scale, full-ecosystem restoration; what’s known as rewilding.

There is a growing portfolio of case study examples of where this approach is being used, including in areas outside of the usual locations of Scotland, Wales and national parks, such as the Knepp Estate where the owners took the decision to take currently uneconomic agricultural land out of production to rewild, with considerable biodiversity outcomes.

Smaller-scale woodland regeneration could also make a valuable contribution to the overall increase in tree cover and help to provide a network of linked habitats, with improved wildlife corridors integrated into our landscape.

It’s also vital to remember that woodlands and forests are far from the only answer to sequestering carbon. A range of other habitats including peat bogs, grassland and salt marsh can also be highly effective at drawing carbon out of the atmosphere – potentially far more so than forests where poorly created or managed. Recovering the health of our degraded soils could make a meaningful contribution towards this overall aim.

Many of the organisations making ambitious tree planting pledges are also those who have been at the forefront of managing land for nature and environmental benefit, so there is minimal risk of one-dimensional, monocultural planting on their part. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the optics and the risk that this could all too easily get boiled down to a numbers game at the political level and in how policies supporting this at a wider scale are developed and implemented.

There is a real risk that initiatives to deliver rapid reforestation without enough strategic consideration of where and how this is being done (for example the species chosen for any given location and soil type) could mean opportunities to deliver multiple benefits are missed, or unintended consequences occur.

It is therefore important that tree planting projects consider the information and advice that is available and that they’re increasingly planned to deliver important strategic outcomes relating not only to carbon sequestration, but also nature recovery and climate resilience.

Here we identify a range of relevant guidance, advice and initiatives which can help to inform those who wish to learn more about how we can deliver afforestation effectively for multiple benefit. There is a considerable amount of guidance out there (and this list isn’t exhaustive). It’s important that the key principles of doing it well aren’t lost amongst all of this; something the new Tree Strategy should consider.

This is not just an England, or UK issue, however. The United Nations have identified 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and have published a Tree planting and ecosystem restoration crash course to promote “five basic rules for getting it right”: Considering root causes of deforestation; working with nature; working with people; engaging with experts, and planning for the long-term. These are all essential considerations which must be at the heart of efforts to increase tree cover in the most beneficial way.

Opportunities to increase tree cover

There has been some concern expressed over how within the land area of a small, densely populated island with a need to produce considerable amounts of high quality food it will be possible to find the land needed to deliver the required increase in tree cover in the UK – from 13% of land area to 17%. Yet there are ample opportunities to do so.

Friends of the Earth for example have identified areas of the country – including large landholdings of water companies – where there is potential to double current tree cover. They propose that water companies’ land holdings could make a significant contribution to this.

And through Water UK a number of water companies have committed to planting 11 million trees by 2030, working with local nature organisations. Of course, where water companies can utilise their land in this way there are likely to be wider opportunities to also deliver water quality improvements – beneficial both for the natural environment but also in potentially reducing the level of treatment required for human use.

Environmental Land Management scheme

As the UK leaves the European Union and exits the Common Agricultural Policy, we will have new scope to reshape agricultural subsidy regimes. Government proposed a new Environmental Land Management Scheme which will be enabled by the Agriculture Bill – a system of paying farmers public money to deliver public goods. It said, The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement.” This enhancement will include carbon sequestration, nature recovery and climate resilience benefits.

If we are to deliver extensive woodland creation via whatever approaches and in whichever locations might be appropriate, it is fundamentally right that those landowners and managers undertaking this work should be paid by wider society through such mechanisms for delivering the range of nature-based services we urgently need to enhance.

Part of this should include measures which encourage greater use of trees planted in a functioning agricultural landscape (Agroforestry and Silvopasture). There is increasing awareness of the many production benefits to including trees in farmland and this could play a role in the proposed overall tree planting drive. Evidence is also showing the benefits which can be achieved from these approaches in terms of reductions in pesticide use.

At the same time, understanding of the biodiversity impacts of apparently beneficial land use change is vital. The UK is blessed with notable CHEG (Clavaria Hygrocybe, Entoloma, Galerina) sites, for example. To a non-mycologist these sites may be desperate, species-poor pastures but in autumn have spectacular displays of colourful fungi and mycologists from Europe come to these sites since they are unlike many sites in Europe. They are typical of tightly grazed sites of low fertility that would otherwise seem suited to tree planting but some – in keeping with their SSSI status – would be unsuitable.

Doing it the right way

To deliver these enhancements effectively, tree planting – where it is an appropriate measure – must be done in the right way and not repeat some of the mistakes of the past. There are many sources of guidance currently available which include information about how to do this, not least from government sources:

UK Forestry Standard

Produced by the Forestry Commission, the UKFS encompasses the entire forest environment, which may include open areas, water bodies such as rivers, lakes and ponds, and shrub species in addition to the trees themselves.

This detailed, extensive guidance applies to the planning and management of forests within the wider landscape and land-use context, and to all UK forest types and management systems, including the collective tree and woodland cover in urban areas. It advocates an approach which is sustainable through balancing environmental, economic and social objectives.

UKFS includes distinct sections on biodiversity, climate change, historic environment, landscape, people, soil, and water amongst others.

Further guidance supports the UKFS, such as guidance on Design Techniques for Forest Management Planning. This provides a step-by-step guide to the design techniques used in the forest management planning process for new forests and woodlands either through planning or natural regeneration but is more geared towards larger forests of plantation origin. It focuses strongly on landscape impacts, local character and how forests and woodlands may be designed to integrate appropriate local, native species.

Other guidance on planning, tools and funding is also available from the Forestry Commission, and guidance on Managing England’s Woodlands in a Climate Emergency was published recently.

Woodland Trust guidance, advice and funding

Other organisations provide guidance and advice on how to plan and undertake tree planting either on a small or large scale. The Woodland Trust are particularly active in protecting, restoring and expanding woodlands across the UK. They provide advice and funding on large scale and smaller scale tree planting.

Moors for the Future project

Other initiatives exist to provide advice and support to landowners managing specific land types, who may wish to bid for funding which is available through government bodies such as the Forestry Commission or Natural England. The Moors for the Future project for example seeks to encourage and support land owners to create clough woodland – areas of steep-sided woodland on the edge of open moorland which can help reduce flood risk and provide valuable wildlife habitat. These areas of land are not productive agriculturally and so represent ideal opportunities for enhancement through woodland creation. Guidance is provided on how to deliver these enhancements effectively.

Woodland Carbon Code and Guarantee

The emphasis on decarbonisation and tree planting is likely to increase demand for offsetting schemes as organisations and individuals at all levels of society better understand their impacts and look to offset emissions through carbon sequestrations schemes – of which tree planting comprise a large proportion.

Offsetting should never be used to avoid taking direct action on emissions reduction but where there is a desire to mitigate emissions impacts more rapidly than may be possible through operational and behavioural changes, it has a role to play.

Ensuring that offsetting schemes deliver in practice the carbon sequestration they offer is essential. But there is also considerable opportunity to use such schemes as drivers of wider benefits too, by ensuring that the trees planted through them are planted in the right places, in the right way.

The Woodland Carbon Code is a government-supported standard which provides the tools and information to land owners required to plan their woodland and calculate the amount of carbon that it will remove from the atmosphere.

It is backed by the government’s Woodland Carbon Guarantee, whichoffers a guaranteed price for CO2 sequestered by woodland creation out to 2055/56. These codes should be used as levers to help deliver multiple benefits.

Delivering wider benefit e.g. flood risk management and nature recovery

Environment Agency Working with Natural Processes evidence base

The range of benefits that can be provided by healthy woodlands is extensive. Alongside their value to nature they can provide significant value in terms of improving water quality and reducing flood risk to communities downstream of them by slowing down the rate that rainfall reaches and flows over the ground and increasing the rate that it is absorbed – both by the trees themselves and the soil.

The Environment Agency has undertaken major R&D projects on working with natural processes, which informs where and how catchment woodlands, floodplain woodlands, riparian woodlands and cross-slope woodlands can contribute to reducing flood risk, alongside other natural measures. It also highlights evidence gaps that need to be addressed in order to mainstream these approaches. The work also showcases a range of case study examples.

Catchment Based Approach practical guide for farmers

The Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) connects thousands of organisations and land managers who are working collaboratively to deliver healthier, more natural and better performing river catchments. Civil society-led, it commonly employs natural approaches to deliver better water quality, management of water resources and flood risk management.

CaBA works extensively with farmers and other landowners who are in a position to plant trees and / or undertake natural regeneration on their land to deliver multiple outcomes and have produced simple, clear and practical guidance for farmers in the north west of England to deliver natural flood management, including how to effectively plant trees in different parts of the catchment and regenerate land for nature.

Forest Research Woodland for Water

A range of studies have been undertaken by Forest Research looking at the benefits that woodland creation can bring for both water quality – by tackling rural diffuse pollution – and flood risk management. Alongside an extensive evidence base they have undertaken opportunity mapping using GIS datasets to identify areas of the country where woodlands can contribute most effectively so that relevant bodies can target grant aid most effectively to achieve gains.

Previous concerns regarding the negative impact that productive forests can have on the water environment are considered in Confor and Forest Research’s The Role of Productive Woodlands in Water Management. This notes that over the past two decades, previous bad practice has been addressed by advances in forest design and management and sets out the case for well-managed, productive woodlands being able to deliver similar or higher benefit to the water environment than unmanaged forests. This echoes views that managed forests are more likely to endure than unmanaged ones because they have a value to local communities.

Bringing it all together: Carbon sequestration, nature recovery, climate resilience

What’s needed is something that joins all this up. A strategic approach to land use planning which considers climate change, nature recovery and resilience and supports the right schemes, in the right places, delivered in the right way.

Various organisations are looking at the concept of Nature Recovery Networks to restore the UK’s highly fragmented and depleted ecology (we are one of the most nature depleted countries in the world). We are only now widely understanding the extent and depth of the services nature provides for our society and economy; it underpins everything and yet right now, we continue to gradually erode and destroy it. However, wildlife is remarkably resilient and able to regenerate, given the right opportunities. Simply, we need to give it these chances more frequently.

This potential is set out by the Wildlife Trusts in their Nature Recovery Networks work. The 25 Year Environment Plan committed to “Develop a Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife, and provide opportunities to re-introduce species that we have lost from our countryside” and provide an additional half million ha of additional wildlife habitat building on recommendations set out by Sir John Lawton in 2010 to deliver more habitat, in better condition, in bigger patches that are more closely connected.

The Wildlife Trusts have proposed the critical enablers of nature recovery to be the Environment Bill, which must set legally binding requirements on governments of the day to increase extent and diversity of nature in the UK. In addition, Local Nature Recovery Maps must be produced by all local authorities to show where there is greatest need, and opportunity, for nature recovery.

Mapping this need and taking maximum opportunity to also assess where other benefits such as flood risk mitigation or shading to reduce the urban heat island effect can be delivered at the same time as nature recovery. The more benefits that can be delivered by any given project on any given piece of land, the better value we can make of the investment needed to make it happen.

Plans to implement delivery against this mapping should be mandatory, cross-administrational (focusing on character areas and ecosystem units) and be properly resourced to achieve the greatest range of benefits. Partnership working, sharing budgets and pooling resources for the best return on investment will be critical to success. Additionally, monitoring the success of woodland creation and sharing experience amongst partners will be vital.

As we look to make rapid and meaningful progress towards our net zero target, including through significant afforestation, it’s imperative that we deliver this in the right places, in the right way so we not only sequester carbon but also maximise nature recovery and climate resilience at the same time.

This also needs to consider where future development such as housing and infrastructure may be needed, and properly integrated into the planning of these so that carbon sequestration and nature recovery-led initiatives aren’t undone years hence, perhaps as they’re only just achieving full performance, because they’re ‘in the way’ of land required for development.

Urban greening

This consideration leads to the need to recognise the importance of urban greening and the value that can be delivered through planting trees in and around our towns and cities within this discussion.

This whole agenda should not be focused only on rural areas but should actively consider where pockets of urban land can be used to increase tree cover for a range of beneficial reasons. Shading, air quality, flood risk management, amenity, productivity and biodiversity value can all be achieved through creating more natural environments in our urban places. And the proximity of large numbers of the population, living in urban areas, to these wider benefits means higher delivery costs can be justified provided the benefits are properly valued.

Drivers for this will include new commitments on Biodiversity Net Gain (and the development of this into wider Environmental Net Gain). But should urban landowners and managers be able to access public money for delivering public goods under an Environmental Land Management scheme?

As tree planting and reforestation become central outcomes to the future of managing our land better, it’s imperative that we balance taking urgent action on carbon sequestration with the opportunity to deliver much wider benefit. Care and consideration allied to proper resourcing and support for land managers to deliver in the right places will yield the greatest long-term benefits for climate, nature, economy and society.

Alastair Chisholm

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