Last month, the Woodland Trust published a landmark report, State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021. In it, the state of our native tree is laid bare. The first of its kind, this ‘State of’ report looks at the condition of non-commercial treescapes in the UK, reporting on both the woods we know and love, as well as the trees we take for granted – the ‘trees outside woods’ that include street trees, hedges, scrub and those lonesome and often majestic field trees.
The report makes for uncomfortable reading, its headline statistic stating that 93% of our native woodlands are in poor ecological condition. Within our much-celebrated – seemingly unchanging – landscape our local wildlife and habitats are in freefall. And this at a time when people are looking to nature for comfort and consolation like never before.
And yet, there are now more trees in the UK than at any time in the past 100 years, covering now 13.2% of the UK. This is no doubt true, but with most of this increase taking place within commercial forestry operations (usually non-native conifers), this seems like a hollow victory. And of the native tree planting that has taken place, many of these trees and woodlands are still very young, yet to really function as natural habitats. Therefore, the report finds, even where cover of native trees has increased, woodland wildlife is still in sharp decline.
What’s going wrong?
Confusingly this comes at a time when nature is being celebrated for its role in improving mental health, and a huge rise in people taking up outdoor sports. And at a time when people are coming together across the country to plant trees in their local areas. So where are we going wrong? And what does ‘poor ecological condition’ mean?
This will vary depending on sites and region, but the main factors point to the following:
- Fragmentation of existing woodland – Existing woodland is vulnerable to fragmentation by development (building, roads, infrastructure, etc), leaving habitat resilience weaker as a result. A large woodland divided in two (by a road, say) will harbour far less wildlife than a complete forest of the same area.
- Poor woodland management – Extensive clearing of woodlands removes much-needed dead wood from the forest, reducing habitat for insects and birds. (Remember the adage: there is more life in dead wood.) Also, poor deer management can cause over browsing and prevent the establishment of new trees in the forest understorey. The pandemic has caused a large rise in deer populations across the UK, threatening many young trees and woodlands.
- Climate Change – This could alter the delicate timing of natural events (flowering, berries, etc), and cause tree woodland species to be squeezed out of their current geographic range, as well as negatively affecting breeding success rates of woodland birds.
- Invasive species – Foreign species can outcompete native species for resources such as light and nutrients. While many are also beautiful trees, they usually do not provide the habitat benefits to the wider forest. Imported pests and diseases are also a major issue, threatening many of our keystone tree species, such as Oak and Ash.
Of these, the general public is largely unaware or powerless to stop any. It is frustrating to feel that we as individuals can care for woodlands but be unable to stop their decline. More likely is required a concerted action on a council or national level to enact practices that remedy the above. Most visible and easily avoidable of these is the fragmentation of woodlands, a practice that leaves outlying woodland sections isolated and impoverished.
The idea that you can replace an old tree with a young one is well marketed by the construction and infrastructure lobby. New roads, housing developments, railways, and so on, all seem to come accompanied by their foregrounds of tiny trees – hinting that, despite the initial destruction, we’re actually better off than before
The case of the Cubbington Pear Tree in the Warwickshire was the most famous recent case – despite the protests, England’s 250 year-old ‘Tree of the Year 2015’ was cut down in 2020 to make way for HS2. But not to worry, we were told, because there’ll be a whole forest to takes its place – if we’re only willing to wait 50 years.
This sets a terrible precedent that our woodlands are not to stand in the way of development, that some things trump the rights of an ancient woodland. The Woodland Trust reports that HS2 threatens to damage 108 ancient woodlands, suggesting strongly that not enough is being done at the national level to protect and respect these sites.
Surely, if we’re to make tree cover increases meaningful, then we’ve got to plant trees without cutting down the existing ones?
Reversing centuries of abuse
It strikes me that we are still recovering from the decades (or centuries) of abuse of our natural forests – an abuse that continues today. The cutting down of the primeval forest in the last 1000 years is mirrored in recent policies that grubbed up thousands of miles of native hedgerows in the 20th Century. If allowed to mature, trees planted today will certainly become functioning parts of the ecosystem in decades to come. Right now we can organise many fantastic winter days putting back hedges, creating community-building events in the process. But the question still arises: where will the wildlife that keeps these habitats functioning live while waiting for the trees to grow? Will some of these species become extinct in the meantime?
The report is not all bad news, but we must be cautious to over-congratulate ourselves. There is currently a huge wave of interest in planting trees, too often seen as a panacea for our climate woes, but also regarded as a solution to local problems, such as flooding, food insecurity, soil erosion. As a result, community groups are coming together across the country – indeed, the world – to plant trees in their local areas. In tandem, farmers are beginning to adopt agroforestry on a large scale, hinting that perhaps – for the first time ever – we are seeing the possibility of industrial food production not having to be at the expense of our forests. The key is now to harness this interest and guide it in the right direction.
In the coming decades, our young forests have the chance to mature and further establish themselves, harbouring more species, locking up more carbon, and stabilising soils. And then, the wildlife will have the chance to return and bounce back. And we will have cause to celebrate that our efforts have been worthwhile.
But these efforts will all be in vain if the existing woodlands are not better protected and better managed. Our ancient trees are ‘ecologically our most valuable resource’ and must be protected above all else if we are to stand any chance of meaningful change.