What's so good about trees?

Trees and forests add quality to our lives. They may even improve our health. Read on to find out all the good they do – and how you can help them too.
  Published:  06 Sep 2018    |      Last updated:  26 Sep 2018    |      13 minute read

You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate trees and forests. After all, they play amazing roles as air conditioners, flood preventers and homes for wildlife. That's as well as being beautiful and great places to explore and escape to. Critically, they also help combat climate change.

Tree facts: a path through the autumn woods
Credit: istock

The good that trees do

Trees and forests are vital to the natural ecosystems that supply us with food, water, oxygen and other essential goods and services.

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."

Warren Buffett

1. Trees combat climate change

Trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air – and the world's forests store enormous amounts of carbon.

2. Trees are a natural form of air conditioning.

In the right place they can help regulate temperatures – and provide shade for homes, workplaces and streets.

3. Trees are good for house prices.

Homes in tree-lined streets tend to have a greater value.

4. Trees help with flood prevention.

By retaining soil, trees help store excess water on land, together with valuable nutrients.

5. Trees improve air quality.

In the Greater London Authority area, trees clear the air of between 850 and 2,000 tonnes of tiny particulate pollution each year – according to a study by the University of Southampton.

6. Forestry contributes £2bn a year to the UK economy.

Forestry in Scotland alone is a £1bn sector employing 25,000 people. That makes it more important economically than fisheries.

7. Forestry and timber help rural communities.

Supplying timber for use in crafts and construction supports many rural skills – from managing land and landscapes to maintaining traditional skills like wood treatment and carving.

8. Trees feed wildlife.

Leaf litter on the woodland floor is a vital food source for wildlife. This includes bacteria, fungi, plants and animals.

Trees combat climate change

Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build new leaves, shoots and roots. Cutting them down stops them doing this job so more carbon dioxide (CO2) sticks around in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Tree facts: deforestation in the Amazon. Half of picture is pristine forest, half cleared flat.
Deforestation in the Amazon. Half of picture is pristine forest, half cleared flat.
Credit: istock

Burning felled trees causes a double-whammy effect on the climate:

  1. The trees are no longer alive to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.
  2. Stored carbon is released as CO2 when we burn them.

The world’s forests are storing vast amounts of carbon. The more carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, the more warming we'll experience. We're already seeing the effects of nearly 1°C of warming – most of which has occurred in the past 35 years.

Each °C of warming leads to sea-level rises and more extreme weather like hurricanes and heatwaves – threatening people and wildlife. Protecting and restoring forests is essential if we're to keep global temperature rises as low as possible.

We need intact, ecologically-functioning forests to meet our targets for a stable climate. But we also need them to reverse a worrying decline in nature.

We've got 12 years to stop climate chaos. The government's clearly not doing enough. Demand action now.

Health and medicinal uses of trees

Tree-derived aspirin

Aspirin is derived from willow tree bark. It's commonly used to relieve pain, fever and inflammation.

Tree facts: A willow tree in morning fog
A willow tree in morning fog
Credit: istock

Taken daily it can protect against heart disease and strokes, but isn't suitable for everyone – always ask your doctor before starting treatment.

Forest bathing

The natural, calming environment created by trees may help improve mental health.

Tree facts: a woman breathing in the fresh air of the forest
Credit: istock

Researchers at Stanford University investigated the effects of nature on negative self thoughts – the type of thinking associated with a heightened risk of depression. They sent people on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment. The participants showed reduced activity in an area of the brain linked to brooding and mental illness.

Unusual facts about trees

1. They can repel attackers

Trees can send chemical cues  to repel attackers – and to attract friendly insects that will eat the enemy species.

2. They're really old

The oldest trees in the world are now 4,600 years old.

3. They work hard

A mature birch tree can produce millions of seeds a year.

4. They're good at fixing things

A new crop of native fruit and nut trees can restore soil fertility – reversing poverty and malnutrition.

Threats to trees and forests

People who do not sustain trees will soon live in a world that will not sustain people

Bryce Nelson

Planet Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Scaling that to 46 years, humans have been around for 4 minutes. The industrial revolution started a second ago – and since then we’ve destroyed almost half of the world’s forests.

It’s estimated that there are more than 60,000 different species of tree in the world. Only about a third of these have been assessed to see if they are safe from extinction.

Tree facts: an ancient Japanese cryptomeria tree growing steeply out of the forest into a blue sky.
An ancient Japanese cryptomeria tree growing steeply out of the forest into a blue sky.
Credit: istock

Many species are threatened directly by human activity. Forests are depleted for timber, fuel and firewood. They're also destroyed to clear land to graze cattle and grow cash crops like soy to feed livestock. And cities eat into forests as they continue to expand.

More products are being traded internationally without proper import checks and hygiene standards. This is exposing trees and entire forests to risks from invasive pests and diseases.

Illegal logging is estimated to be worth $30bn-$100bn. It represents some 10-30% of all timber traded. This business is robbing us all of rare and endangered species, such as mahogany. And it's destroying the lives, homes and habitats of indigenous people and wildlife.

The state of UK and European forests

Only about 5% of Europe’s forests are truly natural and undisturbed by human activity. European states – both EU and non-EU – are allowing them to be cleared or degraded.

For example, Poland, the Czech Republic and the UK have all backed wanton destruction of ancient forests and the nature they are home to:

Bialowieza Forest, Poland

Tree facts: Free living herd of bison in light snow on the edge of Bialowieza Forest
Free living herd of bison in light snow on the edge of Bialowieza Forest
Credit: istock

Bialowieza Forest is Poland’s only natural UNESCO world heritage site. It is an EU Natura 2000 protected area and one of the last remaining primeval forests that once covered the European Plain.

The forest, which stretches over parts of Poland and Belarus, is formed from giant spruce, ash and oak trees. It is home to more than 20,000 animal species including the European bison.

The Polish government claimed that it could only protect the forest by allowing it to be logged. It took legal action by the EU before Poland bowed to pressure – ending the destruction of Bialowieza Forest.

The Šumava National Park, Czech Republic

Tree facts: Trees and forest around Black Lake (Cerne jezero) in the National park Sumava
Trees and forest around Black lake (Cerne jezero) in the National park Sumava
Credit: istock

The Šumava National Park is the Czech Republic’s largest national park and contains the largest wilderness zone in central Europe.

Developers wanted to destroy Šumava and turn it into a ski and log cabin resort. But Friends of the Earth helped save it – maintaining the forest park as a crucial habitat for endangered species such as the capercaillie and the lynx.

There was more controversy, this time involving an indigenous bark beetle in the forest. The species occurs naturally in spruce forests such as Šumava. It's vital to ecosystems that thrive on dead wood.

Despite this, in 2011 the Czech government claimed Šumava had a bark beetle infestation. It then used this as an excuse to pursue widespread logging of the forest – claiming it was preventing the beetle's spread.

The Polish government also tried to use the same unscientific bark-beetle arguments to justify deforesting Bialowieza.

Political debate swept across the Czech Republic: What is the role of wilderness? Where should it be? How, or if, should we access it?

Friends of the Earth Czech Republic and others in Poland led successful campaigns against the threats to both the Šumava National Park and Bialowieza Forest. The forests are safe again for now.

Ancient woodlands in the UK

Tree facts: Rowan tree amid greenery on Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District
Tree facts: Rowan tree amid greenery on Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District
Credit: istock

Much of the UK was once covered by forest. We lost most of it after the last ice age, as land was cleared for timber and farming, and towns expanded.

Just 13% of the UK’s total land area is covered with trees. This compares with an average in the EU of about 35%.

Only about 2% of our original forests are left. The UK is now one of the least wooded nations in Europe. Just 13% of the UK’s total land area is covered with trees. It breaks down as:

  • 18% in Scotland;
  • 15% in Wales;
  • 10% in England;
  • and 8% in Northern Ireland.

This compares with an average in the EU of about 35%.

The UK's ancient woodlands date back more than 400 years. They're some of our most precious habitats; supporting many different species of trees, plants and creatures. Even so we're not protecting them well enough. These majestic woodlands are:

  • Targeted by government-backed road and development schemes;
  • Encroached on by commercial planting of non-native conifers;
  • Affected by harmful invasive species.

In response to public concern about threats to ancient woodland, in 2018 the government gave them more protection in its national planning rules. But ancient woods can still be damaged or destroyed if a road or other project is deemed to be in the national interest.

Did you know?

Only 25 of all tree species in the UK are native to Britain: from ash, beech and elm to oak, rowan and willow. The Romans brought us Sweet chestnut. Other common but non-native tree species include sycamore, fir and plane trees.

Selling off our forests

In 2010 the Conservative-led coalition government tried to sell off England’s publicly-owned forests. It had underestimated the public’s love of trees and forests.

Friends of the Earth, and other charities, warned ministers that trying to sell off our forests would be massively unpopular. And so it proved to be. Millions of people objected. Their collective voices forced the government into a u-turn and a commitment to keep England’s forests in public hands.

Tree facts: Bluebell flowers in Sherwood Forest
Bluebell flowers in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham
Credit: istock

Trains and tree clearing

Network Rail faced a similar public outcry in 2018. People were alarmed at the railway company's plans to axe millions of trees lining routes across England.

To make matters worse, Network Rail had started removing the trees during the nesting season for soaring birds – a time when tree felling is supposedly forbidden.

At risk of once again being caught on the wrong side of public opinion, the government stepped in. It ordered a review and has asked Network Rail to suspend its tree-clearance plans in the meantime.

How can I help trees?

Our top tree tips:

1. Plant a tree – you don't need a garden

Grow a tree in an aerated fabric pot – known as a smart pot – on your porch or balcony. Or find out if you can plant one at work or school.

2. Dedicate a tree

Support one of the many tree and wildlife charities who can plant a tree in the name of a friend or loved one.

3. Line your streets with trees

Join with neighbours and resident groups to get more trees planted in your local streets.

4. Support the Tree Charter

Help people and trees stand stronger together by signing the Tree Charter 

5. Discover more about the beauty of trees

We recommend these books as good places to start: Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham; Native British Trees by Andy Thompson; The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; and The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge.

6. Use certified wood

Ensure that the wood you buy comes from a certified source like the FSC or PEFC.

7. Support UK grown timber

Using UK timber in DIY and construction work is great for the environment – and it's a versatile alternative to steel and concrete.

8. Support community wood recycling

There are 30 of these social enterprises across the UK stocking quality, competitively-priced recycled wood for all your DIY and building needs.

We've got 12 years to stop climate chaos. The government's clearly not doing enough. Demand action now.

Great places in the UK to enjoy trees

Another good way of helping trees is to show decision-makers how important they are to our everyday lives.

Our top places to re-energise and have a fun day out among trees in the UK:

The National Arboretum at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire

Tree facts: Morning light, Westonbirt Arboretum, England. Central tree surrounded by others. Carpet of leaves on ground.
Tree facts: Morning light, Westonbirt Arboretum, England. Central tree. Carpet of leaves on ground.
Credit: istock

It's home to some of the world’s most vulnerable tree species: from the Spanish fir, Atlas cedar and Cretan zelkova to the Asian coffin tree, Monterey pine and the UK’s very own Bristol whitebeam.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and at Wakehurst in Sussex

Tree facts: Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Showing lawn, flowers and Palm House.
Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Showing lawn, flowers and Palm House.
Credit: istock

Great trees and woodlands await you. The gardens are looking out for our trees in the future too – their seedbanks store the seeds of endangered species to prevent them from becoming extinct.

The National Forest

Tree facts: The National Forest Way, Derbyshire. Trees and vegetation sloping down to river.
The National Forest Way, Derbyshire. Trees and vegetation sloping down to river.
Credit: Jonathan Clitheroe

Run by The National Forest Company, it stretches across the English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire.

You can find ancient woodlands and other forests using the Woodland Trust’s map.

Reversing tree decline

The loss of trees and forests is not inevitable. There are some excellent tree planting and forest restoration projects. Our favourites include:

The Green Belt Movement

Started by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, GBM has planted millions of trees in Africa. It was a response to rivers and streams drying up; failing crops and food supplies; and a lack of local firewood. GMB linked up communities to grow seedlings and plant trees – to bind soil, store rainwaters, provide food and firewood, and support rural livelihoods.

The Woodland Trust

The UK charity aims to plant 64 million trees by 2026 – one for every person in the UK – in new woods and forests as well as in towns, hedgerows, and along roadways and riverbanks.

Based on an original 2013 article by Kate Plowman, Friends of the Earth volunteer.