Why UK woodlands and trees are ‘approaching crisis point’

According to the report, only seven per cent of UK native woodland is in good ecological condition (Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

A new report warns that UK woods and trees are approaching crisis point in the face of a “barrage” of threats, including habitat damage, climate change and nitrogen pollution.

A report into the state of the UK’s woods and trees by the Woodland Trust concluded that just seven per cent of the country’s native woodland is in a good ecological condition.

Native woods and trees are able to help curb carbon emissions and reverse declines in wildlife - but failing to address the issues that they face will undermine efforts to tackle both the climate and nature crises, the charity warned.

‘Not nearly enough is being done’

The Government previously announced plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 across the UK to tackle climate change, but the Woodland Trust’s Director of Conservation and External Affairs, Abi Bunker, said that there was “no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline”.

The Woodland Trust’s study warned “not nearly enough is being done to create high quality and resilient native woodlands as part of larger ecological networks; nor to put more individual trees back in the landscape; nor to restore and better manage existing damaged woods”.

The report added: “There is hope, however, if we can learn from and extend the influence of many inspiring local initiatives, highlight best practice, and build a stronger evidence base.”

Benefits of woodland and trees

Woodland and trees in the countryside and in cities are valuable both to people and wildlife due to the benefits they provide, such as carbon storage and flood protection, as well as boosting health and wellbeing.

The report also states that trees, when “thoughtfully integrated with development”, can be positive elements of urban infrastructure, including “through improvements to air quality, noise levels, temperature extremes and water management”.

“Trees act as green barriers which disperse air pollutants and reduce exposure to them (but the relationship is not always straightforward). There is also substantial evidence of the health benefits of trees,” the report states.

Woods and trees under threat

However, the report explains that woods and trees are “subject to a barrage of coinciding threats”, from influences such as climate impacts, imported diseases, invasive plants, mammal browsing and air pollutants.

The report says that “these threats diminish the benefits of woods and trees for people and wildlife”.

All woodlands in England, and in most other parts of the UK, exceed harmful levels of nitrogen pollution, changing the natural makeup of the habitat by damaging delicate lichens and helping grass outcompete wildflowers.

Climate change is also shifting the pattern of the seasons, with evidence showing that “the beginning of spring is now happening on average 8.4 days earlier when comparing the current 1998-2019 period to the historic 1891-1947 period”.

This is a problem because “not all plants and animals which are interdependent can keep up with this rate of change and it may create a mismatch in their food supply” - for example, this is “catastrophic for blue tit chicks that hatch later than the caterpillars they feed on”.

‘The warning sounds are loud and clear’

Bunker 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.”

She warned: “We take them for granted because of their longevity, they are resilient and they have been resilient over millennia, some of them, and hundreds of years, but there’s only so much they can cope with.

“They are approaching crisis point, and we need - even if just for our own survival as a human race - to take note and do something about it now.”

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister site NationalWorld