credit: Jan Huber
The Woodland Trust has produced and costed a £1 billion five-year plan to rescue nature in England’s threatened ancient woods, that are more polluted, damaged, and now contain less wildlife than at any other point in history.
The funding needed represents 4% of the Government’s road building budget*, and 1% of the HS2 costs – just over three miles of the high speed railway**.
The reports findings warn we are the last generation who has the time remaining on a ticking clock to save and restore these irreplaceable habitats, which are central to delivering the UK’s G7 commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
In its new report, Trees and woods: at the heart of nature recovery, the Woodland Trust has outlined how to tackle the issues uncovered in its 2021 State of woods and trees study, that revealed only 9% of England’s native woods are in a good condition and one third of all woodland species in rapid decline.
The plan includes a £150 million Temperate Rainforest Restoration Fund, a £250 million Ancient Woodland Restoration Fund, and a £350 million Woodland Nature Resilience Fund for landscape-scale projects.
Ecologist and Woodland Trust policy lead for nature recovery, Louise Wilkinson, who co-authored the report, said:
"Planting trees is a vital component in tackling the nature crisis that must remain high on agendas. But nature recovery is impossible without the recovery of our existing native woods and trees.
"Now covering less than 2.5% of the UK, our ancient woods – including globally rare temperate rainforest – are on the brink and little progress is being made despite legally-binding targets to halt the decline of nature by 2030. These woods are not supporting the diversity or abundance of species they could and should be. Prioritising their restoration is vital if we are to meet, and ideally exceed, this target and then increase the abundance of wildlife by 10% by 2042. As it stands, most are degrading. Once these unique habitats are gone, so will the species that depend on them. We really are the last generation who has the time remaining on this ticking clock to restore these irreplaceable habitats."
Half of all the ancient woodland left in England is under plantation forestry, which includes areas of globally rare temperate rainforest. The outdated practice of planting conifers for quick-yield timber in ancient woods suppressed the natural species leading to a rapid loss of wildlife. These woods – dotted in vulnerable fragments across the country – sit unrestored. But hope lies in the dormant seed beds that, with restoration, can see the return of species if action is taken urgently. The Trust estimates that to bring half of the 90,000 ha of privately-owned ancient woods into restoration – an area three times the size of Birmingham – funding of £200 million will be required.
According to the report, the health of our environment can be clearly judged by whether species thrive or decline. It highlights that the lesser spotted woodpecker is now barely spotted at all – with an 83% decline since 1970. Hazel dormice populations have declined by 48% in the last 10 years, and hedgehogs – once a regular garden visitor – have declined by 70% since 2000. This, it concludes, is down to deforestation, loss of hedgerows and pollution.
Dr Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust, called on politicians to act:
"This is a crisis which has accelerated within the lifetimes of many of our political leaders. So we’re asking them to act and invest in the restoration of these irreplaceable habitats. Central to averting a catastrophe in our natural world, this investment is a no-brainier. Invest today and see the benefits literally grow and deliver for people and nature for decades. Compared to the cost of more than £27 billion being spent over five years on a Roads Investment Strategy, our call to action asks less than 4% of that. The cost also equates to building just three miles of HS2 track. The time is now, and we’ll all pay a much higher price if Government misses this opportunity to act."
In Fingle Woods on Dartmoor, the Woodland Trust, together with the National Trust, has demonstrated what can be achieved. The dark stands of conifers now make way for the return of ground flora and the hum of a wood coming back to life. 10 years of restoration at the site has seen a return of some long-absent species and an increase in the populations of others. These include priority species such as nightjar, pearl-bordered fritillary, slow-worm, barbastelle bat, hazel dormouse and yellowhammer.
The report is a ready-guide for policy makers and focuses efforts on where money is most needed to see the return of nature. It also covers the urban forest, tree planting and landscape recovery projects. Some of the strategies proposed include:
retrofitting trees in towns and cities to a minimum of 16% and proposing all new housing developments guarantee a minimum 30% tree canopy cover
creating stepping stones in the form of small habitats, such as small copses, not physically linked but close enough to provide wildlife with shelter, food and rest between core areas.
Dr Moorcroft concludes:
"The health of our communities and the places we live is intertwined with the presence of nature, woods and trees, and green space. It’s a barometer of the health of the places we’re raising our families. This report sets out what needs to be done and we hope there is an appetite amongst political leaders to deliver what’s urgently needed."
*£27 billion is being spent over five years on the Roads Investment Strategy. **£1bn equals just over three miles of HS2 (£300m per mile).
The report is available to download from this link: