Sian Atkinson, the lead author for The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees speaks to PoliticsHome about this report, the challenges faced by the forestry sector and the Woodland Trust’s forthcoming policy seminar at Queen Anne’s Gate.
In her interview with PoliticsHome, available on podcast here, Sian highlights the following points that were identified as a part of the report:
• There is a need to increase woodland cover, tackle the threat of big issues like climate change, and maintain public support for forestry.
• A compelling rationale exists for expanding tree cover, developing the markets for UK timber and wood, and unlocking new funds for forestry and woodland conservation.
• Joined-up thinking is desperately needed as many of the policies are installed, but their successful implementation is often hindered because they are spread across government departments.
• Caring for our forests, woods and trees remains crucial, especially in light of a recent poll conducted with parliamentarians which found that 8 out of 10 MPs supported the call to ensure greater protection for ancient woodland.
• There will be a number of opportunities to influence forestry policy in the near future and the Woodland Trust is holding its policy seminar at Queen Anne’s Gate to help achieve a consensus view on the actions needed.
Why did the Woodland Trust decide to commission the report 'The state of the UK's Forests, Woods and Trees'?
The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees was written to mark the climax of the United Nation’s International Year of Forests in 2011. We felt that as well as a focus on global forestry, the year afforded an opportunity to look closer to home at a time of opportunity and unprecedented challenges.
Perhaps most notable of all was the broad agreement about the nature of the task ahead. The report identified the need to increase woodland cover, the threat of big issues like climate change, and increased numbers of new pests and diseases and the importance of maintaining public support for forestry. By acting now, we can all help deliver a resilient forest resource which is vital in the context of a changing climate and an anticipated increase in development pressures.
What are the primary findings of the report?
The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees showed conclusively the benefits of tree cover, with an increasingly strong body of evidence and a growing consensus that trees, woods and forests have a vital role to play in climate change adaptation and mitigation and delivering the ecosystem services we rely on for our existence.
There is also a compelling rationale for expanding tree cover, developing the markets for UK timber and wood, and unlocking new funds for forestry and woodland conservation through the creation of new markets for ecosystems services – the latter is currently being developed by the Ecosystems Markets Taskforce, a project that the Trust is engaging with given its potential to unlock new funding streams.
At the same time the report identifies a number of unparalleled challenges which are threatening our forests, woods and trees. Climate change, pollution, an increase in the incidence of pests and diseases affecting trees, financial crises and increases in development pressure all have serious implications for the future of the forests we all love.
The challenge, as the report identifies, is to seize the moment and ensure that policy rewards sustainable forest management. It is also vital that the warm words about the value of woods and trees, such as those in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, are turned into good stewardship on the ground.
How can we address the challenges in the report?
The report highlights that there are three broad approaches that need to be adopted in order to address the challenges that lay ahead. Firstly, we all need to recognise diversity both in terms of the types of forestry we support and in our approach to stewardship. This means valuing all aspects of forestry from trees on farms, to urban forests to wildlife rich ancient woods.
Secondly, there has to be joined-up thinking across government departments. Many of the policies are in place; however, their successful implementation is often hindered because they are spread across many departments in Whitehall, Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff.
And perhaps most important of all, we need to maintain and increase public awareness and support. As the proposed sell off of the public forest estate demonstrated, perceived threats to woods and trees can and do elicit a strong response as people care deeply about their future. It should never be forgotten that people are the custodians of the natural environment and their support is critical.
The report places great emphasis on collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors. Does the Trust work in partnership with other organisations to further its aims?
As the report highlighted, partnership working and collaboration helps deliver on economic, environmental and social priorities and remains the best way of facilitating the type of forest stewardship needed.
From the Woodland Trust's perspective, Jubilee Woods is a good exemplar of a project that is delivering at least one of the objectives identified in the report (creating new woods) through partnership working with local authorities, landowners, corporate sponsors and community groups. It has demonstrated that tree planting can inspire people, create a sense of civic pride in a community and provide environmental benefits.
We are also working with a number of partners across national and local government including the Defence Estates at sites such as Warcop in Cumbria where 160 hectares of woodland, comprising 176,000 native trees, are being planted – a feat that is doubling the existing amount of woodland on the estate.
This report restates the importance of forest stewardship? Do you feel that the UK is moving in the right direction on this issue?
Despite all the negative attention that the forestry sales generated for the UK government, there has been progress on the policy front recently. The publication of the first UK National Ecosystem Assessment highlighted just how important the resource is by stating that: ‘woodlands provide the highest identified number of ecosystems services including regulating climate, air quality and water flows, providing timber and other wood products as well as a range of cultural benefits.’
At Westminster the first Natural Environment White Paper in twenty years affirmed the government’s desire to see an increase in the rate of woodland creation and enhanced protection for woods and trees. Both of these are objectives that the Trust has campaigned for over many years.
And great strides are being made in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland new forestry and planning legislation will increase the protection for woods and trees, the Welsh assembly has an exciting commitment to plant 100,000 hectares of woodland and the Scottish government are investigating ways to both provide meaningful protection for ancient woods and increase the rate of tree planting.
How important is the issue of forest management? Does it matter who manages the UK’s forests?
The UK has been a leader on sustainable forest management. It is important that we keep this up so that our forest resource is able to deliver on all fronts: biodiversity, productivity and ecosystem services. This includes both increasing the total area of forests, woods and trees in the UK, and ensuring our existing resource is in good heart.
The public, private and voluntary sectors all have important contributions to make in the delivery of high quality stewardship. Retaining a public forest estate, which can adapt and evolve in the future, is critical. A shared vision is needed if we are to see a step change in woodland expansion, encourage the public to enjoy woods and trees and bring this habitat into sensitive management.
It is also vital that woods and trees are given adequate protection in policy and law. In England, for example, we were particularly disappointed that the new National Planning Policy Framework failed to remove the loophole that allows ancient woodland to be destroyed where the economic benefits are perceived to outweigh the environmental loss.
Ancient woodland is the UK’s equivalent of the rainforest; yet in the last decade 630 of these woods have come under threat from development. This is all the more surprising given that a recent poll conducted with parliamentarians found that 8 out of 10 MPs supported the call to ensure greater protection for ancient woodland. It is therefore imperative that ancient woods and trees are given meaningful protection in the planning system both to safeguard the natural environment and to deliver on the aspirations of Parliament.
The Trust is to host a seminar to discuss the findings of the report. What issues will be addressed?
This event is a forum for those passionate about forests and forestry to discuss the findings of The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees. We will be encouraging guests to consider how the recommendations can be acted upon; whilst also identifying opportunities to improve the policy framework and incentives for forest expansion and management.
This fast moving political environment in which we all operate means that the forestry sector must try to achieve a clear long-term vision for the nation’s forests, woods and trees and identify the measures needed to achieve this in practice. What we want to end up with at the seminar is a consensus of view which can be shared across Whitehall, Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont.
And finally, from a policy perspective what are the current opportunities for advancing the aims outlined in the report?
This is a really exciting time to be working on forestry policy. The European Union is in the process of reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and developing a fresh forestry strategy. If the UK is to meet its woodland expansion targets for climate change and help deliver a wide range of ecosystem benefits, support for tree planting offered by the CAP must retain its financial viability and be attractive to landowners.
At a national level there are many opportunities ahead: we anticipate that there will be a new forestry strategy developed for England once the Independent Panel on Forestry has reported. In Scotland there are opportunities to work with the Woodland Advisory Group to ensure that forestry policy continues to support those planting trees.
There are also notable opportunities in Wales with the Trust working with the Welsh Assembly to champion the need to secure strong and meaningful protection for Wales’ ancient, veteran and heritage trees as well as working to support the delivery of ambitious tree planting targets. And in Northern Ireland we are working to ensure that the welcome progress that was delivered through the Forestry Act 2010 is translated into good practice on the ground.
Now is the time for politicians, the public and landowners to work together collaboratively in order to deliver a brighter future for our forests, woods and trees; and the natural environment they are a fundamental part of.