England’s 10 biggest landowners must grow more trees
Analysis by Friends of the Earth shows that some of the biggest institutional landowners in England have levels of woodland cover on their land that is even lower than the weak national average.
We have produced the first league table of England’s ten largest landowners, ranked by the area of woodland they each own. Nationally, England’s woodland cover stands at 10%.
In last place is the Church Commissioners, the investment arm of the Church of England, whose 105,000-acre estate has just 3% woodland cover. At this year’s General Synod, the Church vowed to reach net zero emissions by 2030.
And despite King Charles being famed for his interest in environmentalism, the estate he owned for 70 years and has now passed to his son the new Prince of Wales, the 130,000-acre Duchy of Cornwall, has just 6% woodland cover.
The Prince of Wales and the Church are surpassed even by Highways England, the government department that manages the country’s major trunk roads – but who also have 13,588 acres of woodland growing by the side of motorways, 11% of their total landholdings. Unsurprisingly, the Forestry Commission tops the list, with over 400,000 acres of woods.
Friends of the Earth acknowledges the vital importance of habitats besides woodland that are also key for supporting nature and fighting the climate crisis, and that some landowners will prioritise restoring such habitats. Recent analysis of unpublished Forestry Commission data found that there is enough suitable land in England to triple tree cover in England, without impacting on other Priority Habitats such as peat bogs.
Top 10 landowners in England by amount of woodland cover
- Forestry England: 85% - owns 489,814 acres of which 414,293 acres are woodland.
- National Trust: 18% - owns 474,641 acres of which 84,433 acres are woodland. (See note 1).
- Ministry of Defence: 15% - owns 397,098 acres of which 60,311 acres are woodland. (See note 2).
- Crown Estate: 15% - owns 264,233 acres of which 40,558 acres are woodland. (See note 3).
- United Utilities: 12% - owns 141,000 acres of which 16,849 are woodland.
- Highways England: 12% - owns 114,314 acres of which 13,538 are woodland.
- Network Rail: 11% - owns 100,525 acres of which 10,693 are woodland.
- RSPB: 10% - owns 127,032 acres of which 12,133 are woodland. (See note 4).
- Duchy of Cornwall: 6% - owns 130,639 acres of which 7,361 are woodland.
- Church Commissioners: 3-4% - owns 105,000 acres. 73,000 acres of this is mapped and from that 3,215 is woodland, which is 4% of the mapped area and 3% of the total land owned. (See note 5).
England as a whole: 10% - 32,000,000 acres in total of which 3,240,000 is woodland.
Friends of the Earth trees campaigner, Guy Shrubsole, said:
“Much of England is owned by a very small number of landowners, who have a responsibility to better use their land in a way that helps address the climate and nature crises facing us all. A big part of this means growing more trees, which would remove planet-wrecking carbon from the air and provide homes for wildlife.
“The Government shouted from the rooftops about the launch of the England Tree Strategy but didn’t even set a tree target for the country. This lack of ambition shows a complete disregard for the climate crisis. Ministers must turn this around, by committing to a target to double UK tree cover and providing better incentives for landowners to grow more trees and rewild their estates.”
- Friends of the Earth’s league table was assembled using Land Registry data and GIS mapping. The landowners listed on it comprise the 10 largest institutional owners of freehold land in England. This map does not include private landowners like aristocrats and bankers.
- Land ownership mapping is based on GIS datasets for Who owns England, land owned by the Church Commissioners and land owned by the water utilities.
- Woodland cover data sourced from the National Forest Inventory (NFI). For this analysis, we have included all land cover definitions within the NFI. Taking out the currently non-wooded areas would slightly reduce the area of woodland cover owned by each landowner.
- Friends of the Earth used GIS software to intersect the land ownership maps with the woodland cover maps and measured the resulting areas of woodland that fall within the estate boundaries of each landowner.
- Footnotes to top 10 list:
- National Trust itself reports its woodland cover, across both England and Wales, to be only 10%. The figure presented here is for England only and derived from the National Forest Inventory. The reason for the difference is unclear.
- The figure for MOD freehold land in England is published by the department. Maps of the MOD estate, however, do not distinguish between land owned freehold, leasehold and over which there are simply military training rights. In carrying out this mapping analysis, we took out known leasehold land (Dartmoor, Kielder Forest, some land around Thetford), but there are clearly other leaseholds. The woodland figure and percentage shown here therefore is likely a slight overestimate.
- The figure for Crown Estate land is just landward acres in England. Our map also shows English foreshore owned by the Crown Estate (which makes no difference to the woodland figures or percentages).
- RSPB estate maps do not distinguish between freehold and leasehold land so we have been unable to screen out leases. The woodland figures and percentage shown here is therefore likely a slight overestimate; there may be some overlap with United Utilities, as the RSPB leases some land from them.
- The Church Commissioners do not publish a comprehensive digital map of their estates, so our dataset has been pieced together from other publicly available data. However, it is not a complete map, and shows 73,000 acres out of the 105,000 acres the Church Commissioners state they own: the woodland cover we know they possess is therefore 4% of the mapped area, or 3% of the overall declared estate area.
- England’s area is 32 million acres. England’s woodland cover, as of 2020, is 3.24 million acres (1.31 million hectares), or 10% of the total land area: Forestry Commission Woodland Statistics 2020.