Defra announce plans to plant 2000 hectares of woodland in 2014: what will the impact be on flooding?

It’s almost a year since the Government set out its Forestry and Woodlands policy statement, providing certainty that the forest estate would remain in public ownership. The report, published in response to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s assessment of England’s forest resource, outlined future steps for forest management and resilience.

The protection of woodlands was high on the agenda, but the policy proposals also focused on the potential that forests have to contribute to economic growth, and how best this can be realised in practice. The key objectives in the report were:

1) Protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change;
2) Improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature;
3) Expanding them to increase further their economic, social and environmental value

Last week, the Government announced the progression on the second and third objectives, with £30 million allocated for woodland management and new planting of woodlands in 2014. Over the next year, 2000 hectares of woodland will be planted and 200 000 hectares protected or improved under these funds.

Last year’s policy statement outlined intentions to expand England’s woodland resource from the current cover of 10% to 12% by 2060. Continuing with pre-2013 planting rates of 2000-3000 hectares a year would give a cover of 11% by 2060. The Government aims to meet their target of 12% by accelerating the rate of planting to an average to 5000 hectares per year, met from both public and private planting schemes.

The recent announcement over public spend on planting is welcome given recent flooding across England. Strategically planted woodlands can give flood alleviation through Natural Flood Management, a catchment-based approach aimed at reducing run-off rates in the uplands and reducing flood peaks, and it is hoped that new planting schemes will take this into account.

The British Ecological Society’s recently published Ecological Issues document focusing on the impact of extreme events on freshwater ecosystems highlights the benefits that woodlands in catchment areas can bring. Woodland along hill slopes in the Pontbren catchments in Wales lead to reduced surface run-off relative to grazed pasture. Modelling has also demonstrated that careful placement of such interventions could reduce the magnitude of flood peaks by 50% at the field scale.

In 2013, the Government outlined its intention to use trees and woodlands to manage flood risk:

“We particularly want to see more trees and woodlands in and around our towns and cities and where they can safeguard clean water, help manage flood risk or improve biodiversity.”

Flood risk benefits from woodland have been mentioned little since publication of the report. The Secretary of State refused to confirm that flooding reduction and mitigation was a key aim of Defra in Defra questions last week in the House of Commons, and the potential benefits that reforestation of hill slopes and planting in gullies can give have not been highlighted for future flood resilience.

Woodlands can play a significant role in mitigating floods, as noted by the Government’s woodlands policy statement last year. It is hoped that soft engineering solutions will be a focus for future flood resilience, and the Government will seek to provide incentives for private woodland planting to make up the shortfall in their planting targets in 2014.