A new report published by the Woodland Trust brings together evidence which highlights a barrage of compounding threats which could have catastrophic consequences for the UK’s woods, trees and the flora and fauna within them.
The State of the Woods and Trees 2021 examines the data and evidence behind the health of the UK’s woods and trees. It is the first of its kind to focus on native woods and trees, which are such an important part of our natural and semi-natural habitats in this country. It shows that five major threats are compounding to result in negative impacts that could spell disaster for wildlife including plants, birds, butterflies and insects.
Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and External Affairs, Woodland Trust said: “The warning signs in this report are loud and clear. If we don’t tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK’s ability to address the climate and nature crises. Our wildlife havens are suffering, and we are storing up problems for future generations.
“The first step is setting legally binding targets for the recovery of nature, including our precious and irreplaceable ancient woodlands and trees. The Government’s new Environment Bill must provide the foundation for ambitious, effective and well-funded woodland policies and grants so that landowners and communities can protect, restore and create wildlife-rich, healthy wooded and treed landscapes, in towns, cities and the wider countryside. There is no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline.”
Ian McCurley, Director of Woodland Trust Northern Ireland, said: “To be able to create new native woodlands and protect and restore our precious ancient woodland means more for nature, more for people and more for climate change. We have to rapidly increase tree cover to help reach net zero carbon emissions and tackle the declines in wildlife. In Northern Ireland, we need to reach a rate of planting 2000 hectares a year by 2025 in order to achieve our goals by 2030. We need to start creating woodland on a landscape scale in order to reach our targets.
“We at the Woodland Trust have a crucial role to play and so does everyone. To increase tree cover in Northern Ireland, we need to pursue a mix of approaches, at a variety of scales appropriate to the landscape. These must include expanding native woodland, sustainable commercial plantations, agroforestry, urban trees, hedges and individual countryside trees. Trees will need to be planted on an unprecedented scale, but the right trees in the right places are needed.”
Northern Ireland is the least wooded country in the UK and Europe, with just 8 per cent woodland cover compared to a UK average of 13 per cent and our ancient woodland (woodland in existence since the 1600s) makes up just 0.04 per cent of our total landscape.
Northern Ireland has seen its woodland cover increase from 5.8 per cent in 1998 to 8.7 per cent in 2020, this is the largest percentage increase (but lowest total ha) in the UK.
Northern Ireland has the lowest levels of accessible woodland in the UK. 59 per cent of the population live within 4km of an accessible wood that is 20ha or greater. This compares to a UK average of 66.6 per cent
In Northern Ireland only 1 per cent of woodland ASSI (Area of Special Scientific Interest) area is in favourable condition, with 61 per cent in unfavourable condition.
The biggest reason for adverse condition of ASSI woodland was alien and problematic species such as rhododendron – this was identified at 23 per cent of all sites. Invasive species including bracken or scrub as identified at 13 per cent of all sites.
Nitrogen deposition is a significant and widespread issue. 96 per cent of all woodlands in Northern Ireland exceeded critical levels of nitrogen.
The major threats include:
n Declining woodland condition;
n Climate change affecting woodland lifecycles;
n Direct loss and fragmentation of trees and woods;
n Pests, diseases and pollution;
n Slow rate of woodland expansion.
Expand woodland and tree cover – the Woodland Trust are committed to increasing woodland tree cover on our own estate and in partnership with others.
Enhance existing woods and trees – given the levels of alien, problematic and invasive species identified in Northern Ireland’s woodland, more needs to be done to remove these and promote ecosystem recovery. The Woodland Trust in Northern Ireland have been working to remove invasive species restoring native woodland and supporting the growth of diverse woodland flowers.
Improve the evidence – Northern Ireland does not have the same level of data regarding the extent and condition of its woods and trees as other countries in the UK. Data is required on trees outside woods and the condition of a large area of ASSI woodland still require an assessment.
Invest in the future – significant resources will be required for more and better woods and trees. Due to the many public benefits that can be achieved, public money, blended with innovative private finance, should be seen as a vital investment in the future. In Northern Ireland we need to invest in our local nurseries to ensure that we can supply the trees we need to meet this challenge.
Key advocacy messages
Protecting and restoring ancient woodland must be a key part of the UK’s climate change strategies – Research commissioned for State of WTs shows ancient and long-established woodland is both an exceptional carbon store and has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon.
To deliver for nature, native species must be a major part of tree cover expansion – Despite an increase in tree cover, over half the woodland species we have data on are in decline. To deliver for climate and nature, a major part of woodland expansion must be made up of native tree species.
More high quality woods and trees are needed to create healthier, happier and more prosperous places to live – Trees, woods and other green space are important for physical and mental health and we need more of these to be accessible to more people.
Protecting native woods and trees from threats and restoring them to good health requires a widespread policy and funding overhaul – We need improved biosecurity to stop the import of pests and diseases as well as greater support for local tree nurseries with orders for UKISG trees for planting, especially using locally collected seed of native tree species.