How to influence the England Tree Strategy
What is the England Tree Strategy?
The England Tree Strategy is a plan drawn up by government to support the growing of trees and woodlands for the foreseeable future.
Although trees provide some incredible services (they filter water, suck carbon out of the air and are home to millions of species), England has just 10% woodland cover, compared to a European average of 38%. That's why the England Tree Strategy is important – it can help increase coverage and combat climate breakdown.
The great thing about the strategy is that the first draft is open to public consultation, meaning anyone can feed back on it and pressure government to improve it before the final version is agreed upon. It may be our last chance to influence government ambitions on trees and woods before 2025 (the end of this Parliament), so it's crucial we use this opportunity to push for an ambitious increase in tree cover.
What the draft strategy says
The draft England Tree Strategy was published for consultation on 19 June 2020. Sadly, it fails to set any tree target for England, and the measures it proposes would at best raise England's woodland cover from 10% to just 12% by 2050.
Not only is this woefully inadequate, it's also nothing new. The very same pledge was made back in 2013 by then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (a climate sceptic). Between that first pledge and now, the government signed the Paris Agreement and adopted a net-zero emissions target, and parliament declared a climate emergency.
So why has this outdated and inadequate long-term tree target not changed to reflect the understanding that we're facing climate breakdown?
Passing the buck
The government seems happy to simply repeat its manifesto pledge – to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year across the UK by 2025. But that pledge is a UK-wide goal, not one for England. In reality, ministers are looking to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deliver on their near-term manifesto pledge (forestry is a devolved responsibility, so each nation is developing their own policies).
The Budget announced funding for England to plant just 6,000 hectares of new trees per year during this parliament, meaning that other devolved nations will have to plant 24,000 hectares – the other 80% – for this short-term manifesto promise to be met.1
The consultation says “we recognise that England needs to play its full part and significantly ramp up planting, to contribute to the UK target” – yet it fails utterly to set out what part England should in fact play.
Funding for trees
The consultation document restates the government’s pledge to create a £640m Nature for Climate Fund – promised in the Conservatives’ manifesto and announced in the Budget in March 2020. At this stage, there’s no fresh details of how this money will be divided up – we understand that there are lengthy negotiations underway between the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Treasury about funding that may not be concluded for months.
However, the draft England Tree Strategy does hint how this money may be spent, including:
- Money for expanding the Forestry Commission’s public forest estate – this is very welcome, and a complete about-turn from the government’s unsuccessful plans to sell off our forests back in 2011.
- Funding to plant trees on old landfill sites and other derelict land – something that the National Forest Company has successfully done on old coal mining land in the Midlands, bringing new life and jobs to a post-industrial landscape.
- More support for tree nurseries in England. If we’re to grow millions more trees, it’s vital that we source the saplings domestically, to reduce the risk of importing more tree diseases like ash dieback and sudden oak death, which are devastating our existing woodlands. We’d suggest that this is another reason why government should set a clear and ambitious tree cover target – because that way, more tree nursery businesses will get set up, confident in the knowledge that there will be increasing future demand for saplings.
Good news for agroforestry and natural regeneration?
We need a diverse range of approaches to increase the number of trees in our landscapes. For example, we need lots more native broadleaved woodlands left standing for wildlife, but we also need more sustainable, sensitively-planted commercial forestry in order to reduce the vast amount of timber we import from overseas.
Two approaches – agroforestry and natural regeneration – have historically received minimal support from government.
Agroforestry is the practice of adding trees to traditional farming systems to make them more productive. There are a wide range of ways to incorporate more trees on farms, from wider hedgerows and shelter belts to orchards and "alley-cropping".
While it may sound a bit radical to some, agroforestry has been around for centuries and is still very common in parts of Spain and Portugal.
Natural regeneration means allowing trees to re-seed naturally, rather than artifically planting seedlings. Sometimes planting trees is the best option for an area if it’s been overgrazed and lost all natural seedstock. But reducing grazing pressures on an area of land and allowing scrub and saplings to naturally regenerate (with seeds being dispersed by air and carried by birds and mammals) can create much richer, wilder and species-rich habitat than just planting saplings of the same species and age.
Back in 2013, the government decided against providing grants for agroforestry in England under the old EU Common Agricultural Policy. And despite Forestry Minister Zac Goldsmith expressing support for natural regeneration, we've heard doubts voiced by officials within his department and the Forestry Commission.
However, there are positive signs that those stances are changing. DEFRA now states: “We believe measures, such as grants and clearer policy for regulation, could increase the uptake of agroforestry.” And although it's not groundbreaking, the consultation does at least contain a question about natural regeneration: “Q13: How can we most effectively support the natural establishment of trees and woodland in the landscape?”
Have your say
We need to make sure that public support for rewilding and natural regeneration of trees is heard loud and clear, and that future subsidies for trees – so often focused only on the capital costs of saplings and counting numbers planted – are extended to support land being naturally re-seeded.
Friends of the Earth will be making a more detailed submission to the consultation later this summer, which we’ll publish online.
But most of all, we want you to submit your views too, and call on the government to be more ambitious in their plans for trees. You can do so easily by adding your voice to our petition. Or, if you’d like to write a more detailed submission to the government’s consultation, check out our guide to doing so here.
1. The area of England is 32million acres, or 12.9million hectares. Current woodland cover in England is 3.36million acres, or 1.36million hectares. Adding 6,000 hectares per year between 2020 and 2050 (180,000 hectares overall) would take England’s woodland cover to 1.54m ha by mid-century – 11.9% of the country’s land area. Buried in the back pages of the consultation’s Technical Annex, the government states that “planting 10,000 hectares per year by 2025 is the highest possible planting rate for conventional forestry... in England.” It makes no commitment to achieving this rate, or maintaining it beyond 2025. Adding 10,000 hectares per year between 2020 and 2050 (300,000 hectares overall) would take England’s woodland cover to 1.66m ha by mid-century – 12.9% of the country’s land area.