The Accelerating Woodland Creation conference on March 25 highlighted what should be done for England to fulfil a meaningful share of the UK’s ambitious goal of 30,000 hectares of new woodland per year until 2025. The UK Climate Change Committee has suggested that net zero will only be possible if this level of planting can be sustained until 2050.
Key issues and practicalities around woodland creation addressed by the conference:
Skills shortage – government ambitions for woodland creation are impossible without a new next generation of foresters and woodland managers. Forestry must be in the national curriculum and university capacity must be increased. Otherwise, the country will run out of people to plant and manage woodland at scale.
Land availability – many farmers don’t have the confidence to commit land to woodland. Farming, not forestry, is in their DNA. Environmental regulation is perceived as a blocker. There are untapped opportunities though, including some of the estimated 145,000 hectares of former landfill sites in England and Ministry of Defence land.
Nursery stock – young trees can’t be manufactured, they take years to grow. At present, there won’t be enough seed to meet an acceleration in demand. Tree nurseries need confidence that people will buy what they grow. In recent years, thousands of young trees have gone to waste in the past because of uncertain demand.
Multiple benefits – while net zero is a driver for new planting, trees offer massive benefits to society. In some local situations, this includes nature recovery and flood risk reduction. For this reason, forestry is no longer isolated – it is intertwined into air quality,
Woodland stewardship – wood is high tech material with thousands of uses. If we manage our existing woods better, we can lock in more carbon and produce wood that is a much more versatile material.
Summary of keynotes and panel discussions
Environment minister Lord Goldsmith calls for ‘genuine collaboration’ to meet our greatest ever ambition for tree planting.
While acknowledging the current challenges with COVID-19, Lord Goldsmith stressed the importance not to lose sight of other priorities such as climate change, saying: “The government has hugely ambitious plans for tree planting and woodland creation across the country. Trees are important for the economy, biodiversity and flood resistance. Until COVID-19, the climate crisis was the greatest challenge of this year.”
“We know planting on hillsides helps to absorb water, trees can protect and enhance biodiversity and they are ritually important for nature recovery networks,” he added, explaining that the Environment Bill currently going through Parliament will reflect this. He referred to the importance of the timber market and its role in farmers’ livelihoods through the planting of trees.
“None of this comes cheaply.,” he said. “We have a huge challenge to achieve a scale of tree planting and woodland management we haven’t seen before,” pointing to the government’s £640 million Nature for Climate Fund to help deliver the English portion of the commitment to tree planting to 30,000 hectares a year by 2025, and noting the huge success of Scotland, which has planted over 11,000 hectares of woodland in the year 2018 to 2019.
Lord Goldsmith added that the government cannot deliver this alone, and will require genuine collaboration between businesses, landowners, farmers and communities, to build on the “great work already carried out. We need firms to change the way they do business, and for foresters, local communities, landowners and farmers to plant trees on their land and see woodland creation as a financially viable option. We need more private investment in tree planting schemes, and we need the public sector to make land available that is not needed or suitable for housing building or development.”
Actions the government is taking include the English Tree Strategy (ETS) which is in the consultation stage. He encouraged the conference to respond to that consultation to “ensure the strategy we design enhances the value of woodlands. We need to get this absolutely right and that is only possible if we get robust, honest input from people on the front line, namely those in this conference today.”
Seed nurseries setting greater priorities for home grown trees are important to protect against potential biosecurity hazards, and Lord Goldsmith called for more home grown timber, to create a “conveyor belt of locked in carbon from which the wider benefits will flow.”
He agreed with Dougal Driver FICFor, CEO of Grown in Britain and conference chair, on the value of growing as much home grown timber as possible, as a buffer against “huge biosecurity threats outside our borders,” citing the oak processionary moth, brought into the country on root systems from trees in a garden centre in Kew. He reported that Defra is working on the issue of tree imports and for the time being will follow current UK timber guidelines, adding “the English Tree Strategy is relevant here.”
He stressed the need to maintain the standards that are in place right now, and not risk the negative aspects of planting in the wrong place. In some places, natural regeneration is a better alternative to tree planting, but he had no doubt that the system can be more streamlined. “We are trying to find ways for future landowners to bypass some of the cumbersome aspects of the process, or have confidence to be able to plant.” He recognised that there is more work to be done and he hopes that the Tree Strategy will answer a lot of questions.
Acknowledging that people have concerns about funding streams likely to emerge in the coming years, such as if they plant now on land, they might be required to do more when the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme comes in, he referred to his November 2019 statement, that trees planted now will be accounted for in future ELM schemes.
He added that while everything in government is being delayed right now, there were no specific delays agreed on the ETS consultation, “So, technically, we are on course for this to be published as planned, but I can’t give you that commitment.”
He reminded the conference that he and other government ministers had insisted that the ETS was integrated into areas of public policy, such as flood defence and nature recovery. On whether it will be enshrined in law, he explained that “some aspects will require legislation and others won’t.” The Environment Bill, which is scheduled to be introduced into the Lords in May, will be too early to incorporate the ETS consultation.
As different government teams head up different aspects of policy, he admitted that “we tend to get a silo approach,” and agreed that the government needs a more holistic approach to tree planting. “Tree planting is not suitable everywhere, and some areas not suitable for traditional forestry, so the more joined up we can be the better.”
In closing, Lord Goldsmith urged conference delegates to “keep the communications going as much as we can. We’re not all experts so please don’t hold back and if there are things we should be doing then let us know.”
Sir William Worsley, recently-appointed Chair of the Forestry Commission, explained how he is working closely with Lord Goldsmith to enable the development of the ETS to help everyone to accelerate woodland creation. He recognised recent success in getting trees and woods onto the national agenda, however “the government target raises the bar to a completely new level, and the £640 million nature fund makes it the most exciting and challenging time to lead the Forestry Commission since it was founded.”
He explained that the Commission’s role is to encourage and enable others to create woodland, working in close partnership with the government and organisations such as Defra, Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency and the Environment Agency.
He pointed out that government departments can help include the Ministry of Defence, which has land to plant, the Department of Transport, which has major infrastructure projects that can incorporate new woodland, and the Ministry of Housing and Development, where in the National Forest, for example, 20% of tree cover has come from housing development, and the Department of Education, which can help develop skills, citing initiatives such as the Young People’s National Forest in Derbyshire.
Across the private sector, working with tree nurseries is essential to help grow and supply planting stock: “Good biodiversity is essential and we need our own nurseries to provide the quality, quantity and diversity of stock required.”
The education sector is required to build a more highly skilled workforce, and “we need to show forestry is an exciting career to pursue,” adding that landowners need to be engaged, including farmers who would never have considered woodland creation, and the forestry and land agents are required to advise them. Investors are also needed, and there are many who want to put money into forestry.
Charities and NGO’s such as the National Trust, National Forest Company, Woodland Trust and community forests are must maximise the woodlands that they can deliver. And local authorities like Northumberland County Council which has convened the Northumberland Forest Partnership are needed to create woodland in response to climate emergency.
Communications and engagement with the public and the media are important, he said, concluding: “We need to bring people with us and must not have people feel ignored. This is an opportunity none of us can afford to miss.”
Richard Greenhouse, Director of Forest Services for Forestry Commission England, put forward these conditions for action if the government’s targets are to be met:
Strong political leadership and backing, which the UK government is showing signs of providing, notably by bringing in forestry experts and guardians for tree related research.
Substantial investment from the public sector (such as the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund) and a marked increase in private investment in woodland.
Strong nursery stock with protection against threats of biosecurity.
Land for new planting, with incentives and access to good advice for landowners, and future agricultural policy that breaks down the divide between farming and woodland, making it easy to create good woodlands with the right trees in the right places.
More people for planting, establishing and managing woodland
Quality woodland that upholds the UK Forestry Standard and that best meet society’s needs for timber, fuel, biodiversity and access to nature.
Woodland restoration for neglected plantations, with proper management to enable them to meet their potential and and protection to preserve woodland we already have, eradicate illegal felling at home and halt ‘exported deforestation’ by minimising imports.
He reported that there had been a “healthy number of bids” in the first auction within the £50 million Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme, and that stakeholders could “expect an auction every six months”. He highlighted the role of the Woodland Carbon Code in underpinning the scheme.
When asked if the Forestry Commission is considering matched funding for woodland creation schemes, he pointed to the Urban Tree Challenge Fund, which matches funding with local authorities.
John Lockhart, Chairman of Lockhart Garratt, referred to the vital role that woodland has to play in carbon reduction. One of his central points was that woodland creation is a long term business, requiring planning and investment over many decades.
While private sector support in the form of tax relief and incentives have encouraged change, there was now a need to bring forward woodland creation. He called for simplification, citing recent initiatives in the outgoing Countryside Stewardship scheme which have added complexities and barriers for landowners.
He felt that woodland and forestry had been the poor relation of natural environment policy, but feels that is changing and they have key roles to play in meeting targets for carbon reduction. “The 25 Year Environment Plan is starting to get some legal teeth and we’re starting to see more of this through the Environment Bill.”
Finding the right land to plant is important and we shouldn’t “take the best and most important agricultural land which we need for food security. We need to think about what land might be released, drawing on the potential for disturbed and land that had been used for extraction of sand and gravel. “The former landfill portfolio is 4.5% of the total land area in England and Wales, amounting to 145,000 hectares, and that could make a significant contribution.”
“Building in the true, long term costs is important. For example 75 million plants will be needed to fulfil the 30,000 hectares-a-year target,” he said, adding that much planting is done by hand, “so we need to innovate with direct seeding and mechanisation. Financing needs to be set at the right level, woodland creation takes a lot of upfront investment and revenue streams take a long time to flow through.”
Likewise, the real value of woodland needs to be factored in. Opportunities for timber in construction are on the rise, and technology is being deployed for timber to replace steel. Schemes such as the Woodland Carbon Code demonstrate genuine revenue generation, and well managed woodland can create long term solutions in water management, flood prevention, biodiversity, health and wellbeing, as well as its ability to transform landscapes.
Woodland creation schemes he was involved with included the 1,500-home community Tresham Garden Village, which is part of a Woodland for Carbon offset scheme, and Mountpark Bardon, which has 30% of the new woodland in the National Forest.
Opening a session on finance and the business case for woodland creation, James Cameron, an advisor and entrepreneur on climate change matters, spoke of the crucial connections between law, public policy and finance.
He explained how lessons learned from the 2008 financial crisis to create ‘pension fund money’ from policy incentives can be applied now, and that the Paris Climate Agreement and COP26 provide incentives for the government to properly value carbon sequestrations and enshrine them in policy.
On the issue of matching project size with the right amount of funding, he said that “one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to scale and place.” Examples are big pension funds, who want to deploy, say, £5bn over five years, and want examples of projects. “We have to explain that if you deployed that much in that way too quickly you’d make mistakes.”
He called on a need for standards to generate confidence among fund managers: “We need to get to a position where funds can take risk, and we have to measure in the right way and make projects investible.”
For those with concerns or mistrust around private finance, he said, “I like to tell people that public or private, it’s all our money and it matters how it is deployed. We want to see investment as if the future really counted. We want our pension funds to be going into assets that will have value in the longer term, and we want returns that last.”
Demand for timber is a necessary component for institutional investors and it is vital to create demand in order to stimulate the market, as well as opportunities such as solar mortgages which offer small changes in finance ability for mortgage holders and increasing land value from improved landscapes.
John Tucker MICFor, Woodland Trust’s Director of Woodland Creation, said that generating the level of scale requires the government to create certainty and to broaden the business case for forestry. “We have the data sets to know where the most profitable land is, so we need a land strategy that is suitable for large woodland creation,” including a responsive planning and grant application procedure and grant mechanisms that cover capital costs and payments at 20, 30 and 40 year periods. “I know landowners who are remortgaging their houses to clear land [for woodland] and we shouldn’t be in that situation.”
Farming should look at woodland in collaboration, not competition, he said, and forestry should support productive farming, such as when woods are used to reduce lambing losses, provide shade for dairy cattle, and deliver nutritional and medicinal value.
Susan Twining, CLA’s Chief Land Use Policy Officer, called on the need for a woodland incentive system that has simplicity at the point of access and to extend woodland options to include agroforestry.
Jon Lambert, John Clegg & Co Senior Director, drew attention to the problem of acquiring sufficient land, suggesting that as more than three billion Euros become available as the UK moves out of Europe, the proposal to pay retiring farmers if they relinquish their tenancy agreement or sell their land could be extended, and “add a top up if that land is converted to woodland.”
He also pointed out the significant capital available for woodland creation thanks to discrepancies in land values. Farmers currently pay £1,000 to £1,200 per acre, whereas forestry investors will pay more than double, “so we need to unlock that key.”
James Hepburne Scott FICFor, Co-founder of Forest Carbon, said that the scale of this challenge a major shift in the mindset of landowners and farmers on the relative rewards of woodland relative to farmland. Tenant farmers make up 30% of UK farmland and will need to make long term career choices that require massive investments in training to create the seed collectors, contractors and forestry professionals that will be needed:
“This will require sustained political leadership, and a land use strategy to underpin the application of ELM’s [the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme]. We need to reassure farmers that you won’t put yourself offside in 2024 if you plant now,” he said, calling for a grant support system that welcomes blended finance.
Urban areas offer great potential for woodland creation. However, David Elliott, Chief Executive of Trees for Cities, said the challenges that have to be addressed include land availability, maintenance and watering, as well as vandalism.
Clare Olver of Mersey Forest, which has planted 10 million trees in North Cheshire and Merseyside, and Community Forests, of which there are 10 in England, said these were an incredible force for change, “as about 50% of the population lives within a community forest, and in urban areas we can get some of the greatest benefits, including ‘putting nature to work’ with flood alleviation, embedding carbon.”
John Deakin MICFor, Head of Trees and Woodlands for The National Trust, sees its commitment to plant 18,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030, as “a real opportunity for us to engender and engage people to support good woodland management,” adding “there has been too much disconnect between realities of woodland management and creation, and how people perceive them in society.”
He explained how the National Trust has to enable its farming tenants to create sustainable businesses and warned that we are “still dealing with the legacy in places around previous woodland creation at scale, and the impact this has had on the farming community. “We need to bring those people along with us, so we can use the opportunity to create diversification, benefits for farmers, rural tourism, and so on, and this has to be done in partnership with the agricultural sector, and not done to them.”
Richard Blyth, Head of Policy for the Royal Town Planning Institute, called for an overarching vision and integrated strategies for places, and to depart from the tendency to regard environmental matters in silos and is critical of a national preoccupation with parochial ideas: “You can divide a country into small areas and conclude how they might be planned in housing terms, as half the population crosses local authority boundaries to go to work. We need to think big in terms of the relationships between trees, housing, space and flooding.”, adding that more integrated planning would ensure the environmental voice is embedded into policy.”
When it comes to building a blueprint for action, Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser for the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, said that there are a great range of individuals and situations which need to be considered and suggested we look at those farmers who own land and farm it as a family asset. These people are facing issues around prioritising woodland amid the reshaping that is about to happen from pressures like the economy and Brexit that are changing the economics of farming production.
On how Scotland has succeeded in tree planting, he said that Scotland offers a scale of land ownership England doesn’t, and estates have longer timescales as sources for private funding.
Looking at the Forestry Share Agreement, he said be aware that this asks farmers to share income 40 years hence, “which compared to the life of a dairy cow, puts things into perspective. With the changes coming down the track, it’s an opportunity cost, and once you’ve put your land into timber it’s expensive to get out of, and you can shut off other things you might see in the next decades.”
He warned that a deeper issue for farmers is the sense of woodland as an activity: “They’re used to managing livestock and maintaining woodland can be seen as passive by comparison.”
He agreed that sawmills are economic drivers and can help, and may help to justify woodland or, he asked, is there a way of looking at Faster Forestry, “something which turns plants around in a quicker cycle so bring income and management and change forward.” These would be “longer term crops are on a farming perspective, rather than something of the perspective of generations.”
James Simpson MICFor, director of operations, Forestry England said that the main change in Scotland was confidence among landowners that investing in projects would be successful.
Forestry England is creating a blueprint for next few years and, as part of Defra, is in the middle of the discussion. He reported, “We are aiming to acquire 1,000 hectares of land a year, and while this is a fraction of what needs to be done, if we create activity I hope it will create confidence across a wide sector.”
He went on to say that any woodland Forestry England will plant will be resilient biologically and in terms of future funding, based on natural capital values not just financial ones, in places chosen for biggest impact, and they will work with owners of neighbouring land to buy from, land will be freehold or at least 120 years’ leasehold.
Jamie Gordon, chief forest advisor for WWF said that he felt a sense of urgency at the conference and the need to “crack on and do something,” but stressed the work to be done on public perception and “gaining an understanding of what we do.” He warned that if you do encounter specific interests in your profession, you tend to think a vision of what woodland should do is the vision, citing the mass planting mistakes of the 1980’s and 90’s.
He pointed to the extensive reach and value of forests, and called for a bigger view when putting forests back into landscapes, as “they will affect what’s going on around that landscape and how it connects up.”
In essence he said we are asking forests to help restore nature, provide goods and services, as well as combat climate change, and “we have to recognise there will be trade offs while we’re trying to tackle all three.”
Victoria Vyvyan, CLA vice president, who is also a landowner with forestry, biomass, lowland heath restoration as well as “several hectares of land looking for a home”, called on the Forestry Commission to consider land owners and managers who are looking at land use strategies for their whole holdings, not just in regard to trees and pointed at key challenges and opportunities.
“Permanent land use change is a disincentive,” she explained, “as some projects aren’t permanent and you lock landowners in.” The fact that farmers and owners borrow money against land value is another challenge, because if forestry devalues land it will have severe financial consequences.
Caroline Ayre MICFor, England National Manager for Confor, summarised the country’s capability for woodland creation and management in her presentation. She re-emphasised the vital importance forestry and timber plays in the decarbonisation of the UK economy. “Confor members who make up the supply chain can make that happen but we need knowledgeable policy making, wise investment in growing our future forests and a long-term management strategy”.
The opportunities lie in creating certainty in policy, which will lead to private and public financial commitments, and developing straightforward funding options that people can access.
The Accelerating Woodland Creation conference took place on 25 March 2020 and was organised by the Ecosystems Knowledge Network.