We asked experts about the future of our forests, and for suggestions to help them grow.
1. Create a coherent plan to support nature across government
“Reflecting on the fact that no government can really deal with the fact that forestry goes over multiple generations – let alone multiple political terms… I would wish really for all departments across government to become linked in to thinking about how they deal with nature and the natural world.”
Dr Gabriel Hemery is co-founder and chief executive of the Sylva Foundation, an environmental charity helping trees and people grow together. When asked for one policy suggestion to help Britain’s future forests, he said, “I’d like the education department to sort out the fact that every school child in Britain should have access to forest school. I’d like for business to have the triple bottom line built into their their DNA and to be supported through government actions and how they’re rewarded and I’d like those to who care for the land, including our trees, to be rewarded and supported”
“The short answer is I’d like government to bring its departments together and have a coherent concerted plan to support nature.”
2. Bring agriculture and forestry together into one ecological unit
We asked forester Jez Ralph, of Timber Strategies, for one policy suggestion, and he said “we should stop siloing – forestry in one place, and agriculture in another, and other land uses in another – but start thinking about cohesive landscapes, where forestry and agriculture are mixed together into one ecological unit.”
Jez says "we have to change the way we look at timber supply. In the past, as foresters, we’ve been dictated by what the customer wants but now we have a much better understanding – and things like climate change mean that we have to manage forests for their own health first and foremost. No healthy forests, no timber for you at all”
“I think one of my biggest fears is that our political system perhaps struggles to cope with the long-term nature of forestry and incentives are quite short-term and fit into election cycles rather than a 50 or 100 year cycle and I fear that perhaps we don’t at the moment have the silvicultural craft to really understand these new forests – but my hope and excitement – is that there’s a new generation of people coming in that can combine all these exciting elements and create incredibly healthy forests. My biggest biggest hope is I suppose that as a society we can embrace evolving forests and really build up a wood culture back in the country again.”
3. Deliver funding to turn policy into practice
At Knepp we spoke to Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, and asked him what part trees play in the rewilding process. He said “trees and scrub are an essential part of a natural healthy ecosystem in temperate Britain but we’ve cleared so much of the landscape historically. It’s essential that we encourage their recovery via rewilding schemes – we want to restore a natural healthy functioning ecosystem and trees have a vital part to play in that”
“But do you need to plant or can you allow natural regeneration? That answer depends on where you are in the country, depends on the proximity of good tree seed sources, the variety of those sources, and it depends on local climate topography – how harsh the environment is. Down here in the in the warm southeast in a very treed landscape natural regeneration is the way to go and Knepp’s proven that. You don’t need to plant here, trees will find their way”
When we asked what he thought of the government’s tree planting targets, he said “the government’s tree planting targets targets are, to be honest woefully short of what they need to be, we really should be aspiring to something like around 25, 30 percent tree cover in this country, that is entirely possible without it compromising existing food production. However, we are where we are, it is challenging enough to deliver a couple of percent increase. Rewilding Britain and others will keep pressure on the government to be more ambitious as time passes. We are moving in the right direction with policy, we’re not moving fast enough and we’re not being bold enough.”
“I guess my main hope for rewilding is, it just carries on as it is because the level of interest gone through the roof in the last couple of years. But we we need to make sure that government turns fine words into action now, we’ve persuaded government on several areas of policy in principle now they need to deliver on funding and hard policy and practice.”
4. Value productive woodlands in creating good quality timber
“I’ve been working in hardwood tree improvement for nearly 20 years now,” said Dr Jo Clark, head of research at Future Trees Trust. “The main aim of the Future Trees Trust is to work with commercially important timber species. The aim of a breeding program is so that we can produce trees for planting that are of higher quality than normal planting stock, and this means that it’s quicker for these trees to get established. That means our trees can grow a little bit faster, it means that the rotation can be reduced, and these trees with their longer and straighter lengths of timber will be used in bigger building projects rather than planting lower quality stock which often ends up as firewood.”
That’s important in terms of locking away carbon for the long term. “If you can grow quality timber that gets turned into quality products, that carbon in those trees is locked up for a very, very long time and this is so important today when we’re trying to hit our net carbon targets.”
“When people are planting trees I think it’s really important that they consider what they’re planting and where it’s come from. It’s not just a matter of buying trees and popping them in the ground, it’s really important to ask your supplier what region of provenance you’re getting your material from. Thinking to the future, we know the climate is warming so we have to ask ourselves how are the trees we’re planting today going to cope with those warming environments?”
“Where you’re trying to grow trees for the future, for timber,” said Dr Clark, “think about what you’re planting and where it’s coming from. In other European countries where they’re planting trees for timber and there is improved material available they have to plant that by law and I think my one policy suggestion would be that this should be the same in the UK and that where we have qualified or tested material available there should be a requirement to use it.
“And there is qualified material available already for sycamore, for birch, for cherry, and oak is coming, and chestnut is coming. We have these orchards planted, it’s just a few more years to wait until they start producing seed.”
5. Grown in Britain policy for all timber used in public buildings
Dougal Driver, chief executive of Grown in Britain said “I’d like to see the government put its money where its mouth is really, it talks about climate crisis and using timber more in projects but I’d like to see it have a grown in Britain first policy on all of the projects that are funded by taxpayers money. Whether it’s building a new school or in Parliament buildings, local authorities, highways, all of these things that are funded by the public purse, they should have a grown in Britain first policy.”
“Everybody’s talking about trees and woods and wanting more of them and so I just hope that we can take that interest from the public.” But Dougal said he wants people to “understand that it’s not just a question of buying a tree, sponsoring a tree and putting it in the ground and leaving it and expecting the planet to be saved through just doing that…”
Grown in Britain is an independent not-for-profit organisation working to ensure the future success of the UK’s woods and forests. It works at every stage of the forest product supply chain to support the use of UK timber. Dougal talked about the risks to our woodlands from diseases like ash dieback. “Ash is being devastated by an imported disease – so I hope we can get a grip on our biosecurity as we move forward, and treat these trees and woods, as real special cases and protect them from pests and diseases, so I have some fears around that.
“But I’m exceptionally hopeful about this interest we have in these wonderful places and of course this wonderful material that it produces.”
6. Funding for 19% canopy cover by 2050
Suzi Maritineu works with Tree Sisters, a women’s led charity focusing on reforestation projects in the tropics, and she co-founded The Tree Conference. She says increasing tree cover in the UK is achievable. “I think the 19% canopy cover across the UK by 2050 is an achievable target. If the government was to put out clear messaging, of all landowners, farmers and communities, increasing canopy cover between five and ten percent – and supporting that directly financially, then that would bring about the kind of canopy cover that we need in this country.”
We spoke to Suzi during lockdown, as part of our series exploring hopes and fears for the future of our forests. Tom asked Suzi “about the relationship between humans and trees and how the positive feelings that we seem to experience in woodlands when we’re walking amongst them has a basis in science?”
Suzi said “one of the big influences who we invited to the first Tree Conference was Diana Beresford-Krueger, a botanist and a biochemist. There’s a lot of different areas of research that she covers, and examples would be a variety of different aerosols emitted from different trees that both contribute towards rejection of inflammation in the lungs, or the chemicals that actually reduce tension in the brain.” She said trees “evolved to suit, to ‘meet’ the senses of the beings who will come in and help propagate their seeds.” and that includes us human beings.
Suzi shared concerns that we also heard from heard from Gabriel Hemery at the Sylva Foundation, and Jez Ralph at TImber Strategies, and said there is “a lack of integration across different government departments and across different sectors” and that “understanding a clear coherent relationship with ecosystems and trees needs to be central to how we move forward.”
7. Control grey squirrel numbers to protect young trees
Tom spoke to chartered forester and woodland consultant Graham Taylor. Graham is managing director of Pryor & Rickett Silviculture and was awarded a CBE for services to forestry. Tom asked about the state of Britain’s broadleaf woodlands.
“They’re ageing” Graham replied, “we’ve been planting a relatively modest amount over the last 20, 30 years to try and keep up the momentum, but there’s a lot of fragmented woodland, there’s a lot of unmanaged woodland and there’s lots of concern about pests and disease. Particularly things like the grey squirrel and deer causing an awful lot of ecological harm.”
When asked for one policy suggestion to help Britain’s woodlands grow, Graham said “put some serious investment into helping solve the grey squirrel problem – grey squirrels will damage planted trees, they will damage naturally regenerated trees, they damage a wide array of our native species and they they fundamentally frustrate the ‘woody economy’ from being the the brilliant, sustainable industry that it can be.”
8. Implement a carbon tax to incentivise local production
We met Chris Smaje, author of ‘Small Farm Future, and his wife Cordelia at their small-holding in Somerset, to talk about agroecology and agroforestry principles.
“Climate change is rising up the agenda and there’s the whole rewilding movement, and people are getting more interested in thinking about wildlife,” said Chris. “It’s a great time to be thinking about this and integrating trees. My concern is that we’ve got to keep thinking about food as well. It’s not it’s not just trees and it’s not just wildlife, or climate change. It’s about producing food for ourselves locally – and that’s where agroforestry contributes because there’s the ‘agro’ bit as well as the forestry.”
“Really what we need to be doing is relocalising food and and producing more of it ourselves, integrating it better in the landscape but our hope is that the policy framework is more geared to thoughtful integration of trees and biodiversity into the landscape”
Tom asked “If you could suggest one policy that the government could implement to support the work you’re doing here what would that be?”
Chris replied “I’d probably say a carbon tax, because so many of the problems that we have are connected with cheap fossil energy that makes it easy to sort of divide land uses up into single monocultural sorts of things. I mean, there’s loads of other reasons why a carbon tax would make sense but it would really incentivise people to be producing food and other products, such as woodland products, locally in the landscape in a way that’s not really happening at the moment when fossil energy is so cheap.”
9. Always plant improved trees when planting trees for timber
We asked woodland experts about their hopes and fears for the future of our forests, and for suggestions to secure their future. We spoke to Dr Jo Clark, Head of Research at the Future Trees Trust.
She said “Thinking to the future, we know the climate is warming."
"We have to ask ourselves – how are the trees we’re planting today going to cope with those warming environments of the future?”
“Timber and paper products is one of our biggest imports in the UK, and if you can grow quality timber that gets turned into quality products, that carbon in those trees is locked up for a very, very long time and this is so important today when we’re trying to hit our net carbon targets”
“In other European countries, where they’re planting trees for timber and there is improved material available they have to plant that by law and I think my one policy suggestion would be that this should be the same in the UK.”
10. All school age children to have access to forest school
Award winning author Gabriel Hemery called for all children to have access to forest school, so that they are better connected to nature. Gabriel co-founded the Sylva Foundation, a charity that helps trees and people grow together, which supports a wide range of nature eduction projects, including forest school. When asked for one policy suggestion, he called for government to create a coherent, concerted plan for nature – including – “the education department to sort out the fact that every school child in Britain should have access to forest school.”
Forest school is a form of outdoor education that nurtures a connection to nature. It’s a long-term program that supports play, exploration and risk taking, developing confidence and self-esteem through experiences in a natural setting. Wood for the Trees film maker Charly Le Marchant is a forest school leader as well as a film-maker, with Shared Earth Learning, which is based in the young forest planted by Cordelia and Chris at Vallis Veg, who featured in part six of the series ‘Wood for the Trees.’
11. Prioritise woodland restoration over tree planting
Through the 12 days of COP26 we shared these 12 expert suggestions to help Britain’s forests grow. The last two suggestions are from Doug King Smith, who owns the Hillyfield Woodland Farm.
Doug says “there needs to be a recognition that forestry is not just cutting and planting trees – it’s also the enjoyment of woods, the education that can take place, and the other activities which are forest based”
When asked to suggest one policy to help Britain’s woodlands, Doug said “My main contribution is to suggest that woodland restoration is given a priority over planting.”
12. All funded tree planting to be accompanied by a long term management plan
Doug King Smith said that woodland restoration should be prioritised over planting, “and all planting is made to have a decent planting plan and management plan, because without that we’re just going to have more neglected woodlands.”
Over many years, and with the help of volunteers, Doug and his wife have been working to restore Hillyfield Woodland Farm. The Forestry Commission described his work as ‘a first class case study’ in small woodland management.
When we asked about Doug’s hopes for the future he said “my hopes are that woodland culture is restored, which means people love wood, woodlands and all of the ecosystems that thrive within a healthy managed woodland. It’s a hope that we can see the woodlands that are neglected be restored. In Britain half of our woodlands are still under managed, or not managed at all. I hope that those woodlands are integrated into their communities with people deriving a living from working their woodlands, and the timber is used locally so we’re not importing so much timber.”
Many thanks to our expert guests:
Dr Jo Clark, Future Trees Trust,
Dr Gabriel Hemery, Sylva Foundation
Jez Ralph, Timber Strategies
Doug King Smith, the Hillyfield Woodland Farm
Alastair Driver, Rewilding Britain
Dougal Driver, Grown in Britain
Graham Taylor, Pryor & Rickett Silvaculture