Government pledges to treble England tree planting to tackle climate crisis

Young silver birch trees on land which was farmland

The amount of trees being planted in England will treble within a few years to tackle the climate and nature crises, the Government will pledge this week.

Tree planting rates will increase from current levels of 2,340 hectares to 7,000 hectares (5,800 acres to 17,300 acres) a year by the end of this Parliament, under a long-awaited England trees action plan launched on Tuesday.

However, campaigners warn the goal for England is less than a quarter of the Government’s UK-wide target to plant 30,000 hectares a year (75,000 acres) by 2024 and fails to rise to meet the nature and climate crises.

The action plan is expected to set out how woodland cover will be increased with tree planting, focusing on broadleaf native trees, as well as processes such as natural regeneration, where trees grow back naturally on the land.

It also includes funding for new nurseries to produce home-grown, disease-free saplings for planting.

The relatively low target raises questions about how much of the overall 30,000 hectare goal will be met by non-native commercial conifer plantations in Scotland, which campaigners warn do not deliver benefits for wildlife or the public.

With historic planting drives often damaging the environment, by draining carbon-storing peatlands or planting on wildlife-rich heaths, experts have warned of the need to ensure the right trees will be planted in the right places.

The Government is also being urged to put natural regeneration “front and centre” of bold plans to increase woodland cover.

The England trees action plan will be launched by Environment Secretary George Eustice at Delamere Forest, Cheshire, on Tuesday in a speech in which he will also set out moves to protect the country’s peatlands and boost wildlife.

He is expected to say: “We are putting plans in place to treble woodland creation rates by the end of this Parliament, reflecting England’s contribution to meeting the UK’s overall target of planting 30,000 hectares per year by the end of this Parliament.

“We will make sure that the right trees are planted in the right places and that more green jobs are created in the forestry sector.”

Across the UK, around 13% of the country is wooded, which the Government’s climate advisers say needs to increase to 17% by 2050, to absorb some of the country’s carbon emissions which cannot be eliminated.

That will mean planting 30,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer trees – some 90-120 million trees – a year.

Some 13,700 hectares were planted in 2019/2020, the majority of which was in Scotland and more than half (56%) was conifers.

Around 13% of the UK is wooded Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

In England, 2,100 of the 2,340 hectares planted in 2019/20 were broadleaf trees, a trend which officials say the action plan aims to continue, given the additional benefit they provide for nature by creating habitat for native insects, birds and mammals.

Abi Bunker, director of conservation and external affairs, Woodland Trust, said: “Trees can deliver for climate and nature but the relationship isn’t straightforward.

“The UK’s woodland cover has nearly tripled since the beginning of the last century, but much of the increase has been low diversity forestry plantations.”

A recent report from the Woodland Trust showed native woods and trees are fragmented and at risk from development, most were in a poor condition, and half of woodland wildlife and plant species were in decline.

Ms Bunker welcomed the investment in UK tree nurseries and said: “Government’s targets for new woodland should be met by integrating UK sourced and grown native trees into our landscapes, helping to deliver for nature and people.”

Danny Gross, trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The Government’s new plan fails to rise to the challenge of the climate and nature crisis.

“It means England would grow less than a quarter of the woodland needed to hit the Government’s existing unambitious short-term target for the UK, leaving Scotland and Wales to do all the heavy lifting.

“The Government needs to up its game and set a long-term tree cover target, protect other natural habitats and support farmers to grow more trees.”

Rewilding Britain spokesperson Richard Bunting urged the Government to double or more the country’s woodland cover over the next decade, as Britain is one of Europe’s least wooded countries.

“That means placing natural regeneration of trees front and centre in its plans.

“Allowing and assisting trees to naturally establish over large areas – supported by native tree planting in suitable sites – is the best way to transform the fortunes of our crippled forests and woodlands, to benefit people, nature and climate,” he urged.

He said letting millions of trees plant themselves across the country would reduce costs, management, tree diseases and plastic tree guards which are commonly used in tree planting schemes.