Protecting, improving, and expanding our forests – 1 year on

It’s been a year since the Government published the Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement. This marked the end of an uncertain period for the forest estate in the England, with questions over ownership left open until the publication of last year’s statement. Commenting on the recommendations made by the Independent Panel on Forestry, the statement set future directions for the future of English forestry policy. An update on how commitments are being met was released last week.

Three key objectives underlie the policy proposals set out in 2013:

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

Progress has been made on these in some areas, but as stated in the update, there is still a long way to go to ensure that England’s woodlands are resilient, free from threats, and a valued social and economic resource.

Under the first objective of protecting woodlands from threats such as pests and climate change, there is a strong focus on tree health. There has been a strong move towards the first commitment of ‘giving tree and plant health greater priority than ever before’ over the past year, helped in part by outbreaks of pests and diseases on ash, oak, plane and larch over recent years. Work on Chalara has been responsive, and there are now several research projects in place in addition to the Chalara Management Plan.

There has also been work to build resilience to both climate change and pests, but much more work is needed in this area. Only 10 species account for 80% of the woodland canopy in England. Not only does this give limited recovery of areas of particular species are affected, the loss of tree species will have knock on effects on plants and fungi that rely on these trees. These wider ecological impacts are starting to be assessed, as demonstrated in a recent report from JNCC that looked at the effects of Chalara.

Future threats are starting to be identified by the recently created plant health risk register, and the appointment of a Chief Plant Health Officer will hopefully ensure that actions are well prioritised. Little progress has been made in addressing key skills shortages in this area, which will inevitably have serious future consequences.

The main focus for improving woodlands this year has been on driving economic growth through improved management of harvestable areas and better implementation of the UK Forestry Standard. Some progress has been made in improving to areas for the benefit of people and wildlife, but there is still a lot of work to do in this area. For wildlife in particular, the effects of any management or policy changes cannot be assessed after just one year. As the Government’s commitment sets out, recommendations from the Natural Environment White Paper and Biodiversity 2020 need to continue to be implemented, and the impacts of these need to be monitored.

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 therefore 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. Funding for planting 2000 hectares of woodland in 2014 was announced at the beginning of this year. This falls short of the target of 5000 hectares, but it is assumed that privately funded planting will make up the difference.

Last week’s update further confirmed that the Government remains committed to keeping the forest estate in public ownership, as first announced in 2013. Confirmation was also given that the Forestry Commission would continue to deliver key forestry functions, with improved communication networks between Defra and the Commission.

One year on, and England’s woodlands are inevitably still far from being well protected from future threats and valued by society. Work to protect woodlands needs to focus more on identifying skills gaps and working to ensure these are sufficient addressed to not cause problems in the future. Improving woodlands for wildlife needs to continue, and needs to be monitored to fully gauge the effects of any activities. Expanding woodland cover in England has begun, but there is not yet certainty that private planting will be able to bring planting up to target. If work to deliver on commitments continues in 2014 at the same rate as 2013, next year’s update will provide an interesting assessment of this policy in practice.