Let nature work its magic and create a million acres of new woodland in England

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Jays help to plant new woodland by burying acorns in the ground

Over a million acres of new tree cover could be created in England simply by letting existing woodland regenerate and spread, new research shows.

The findings, commissioned by Friends of the Earth in partnership with Rewilding Britain, bolster calls that the UK government should pay greater attention to natural regeneration as a way to confront nature and climate emergencies by increasing the country’s tree cover, alongside planting more trees.

Natural regeneration is the process by which trees self-seed through wind-blown seed dispersal or where animals like jays and squirrels bury nuts which then germinate. The benefit is that it naturally occurs, but is often disrupted by grazing livestock and deer eating the saplings.

New mapping, carried out by Tim Richards from TerraSullis on behalf of the two organisations, shows that allowing existing broadleaved woodlands in England to self-seed by 150 metres on all sides – excluding nature reserves, priority habitats, and productive farmland – would produce a million acres of new woodland. The analysis also identified the local authority areas with the greatest potential for natural woodland regeneration, which includes Cornwall, Harrogate and Northumberland.

England is one of Europe’s least wooded countries. Evidence from Friends of the Earth shows there is more than enough suitable land to double England’s tree cover, without affecting precious habitats such as peatlands or valuable farmland. Current rates of woodland creation in England remain at historically low levels, with just over 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) established this past year, mostly through planting.

Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, said:

Doubling the UK’s tree cover should be a government priority, this is because the benefits are clear to see. It will help to restore nature and absorb climate-wrecking carbon emissions. By enabling woodlands to flourish, we can also reduce the UK’s dependence on timber imports in a further win for the planet.

Natural regeneration puts us well on the way to that goal in England. By substantially increasing funding for farmers and other landowners so they can set aside suitable land for natural woodland regeneration, we can let nature work its magic.”

Guy Shrubsole, policy and campaigns coordinator at Rewilding Britain, said:

This new study confirms that natural regeneration has a huge role to play in helping meet woodland creation goals, draw down carbon and help wildlife to recover.

Allowing trees to self-seed leads to more biodiverse woodland and scrub habitat than if they are simply planted, and supports many threatened species of plants, birds and mammals. By working with nature, it helps resolve the problem of growing the right tree in the right place’ – and does so at lower overall cost, because you don’t have to pay for saplings or the costs of planting them.”

Although the government announced earlier this year that it would fund natural regeneration for the first time with public money, Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain say the terms of the new grant scheme are flawed. That’s because applicants for the government grant will only receive funding for natural regeneration if their site is within 75 metres of a viable seed source, such as a nearby wood. However, a recent peer-reviewed article funded by the government found that trees can naturally regenerate up to 150 metres from a seed source. The grant’s existing terms constrain the full potential of natural regeneration when trees are proven to self-seed over far greater distances.

That’s why Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain are today calling on the government to seize the opportunity to create biodiverse new woodlands cost-effectively by raising the grant threshold from 75 metres to 150 metres from any broadleaf woodland seed source. This is providing that important wildlife habitats are not threatened, nor peat-rich soils which play an important role in sequestering carbon.

These buffer zones’ around existing wooded areas would also need protection from overgrazing to thrive. This could be achieved through a mixture of fencing and innovative no-fence’ technology, which controls where livestock graze using GPS instead.

“Allowing trees to self-seed leads to more biodiverse woodland and scrub habitat than if they are simply planted, and supports many threatened species of plants, birds and mammals”
Guy at Wistmans Woods 2020
Guy Shrubsole
policy and campaigns coordinator, Rewilding Britain

ENDS

For more information and interview requests contact the Friends of the Earth press office on 020 7566 1649 or email [email protected]​foe.​co.​uk.


Notes to editors

  1. New mapping highlighting opportunities for natural regeneration can be viewed here.
  2. The online rewilding map is publicly available here under the Nature” tab. 
  1. The top 20 local authority areas with the greatest potential for natural woodland regeneration:

Local authority area

Potential acres of natural regeneration

Cornwall

69,598

West Devon District (B)

39,712

Torridge District

39,348

Shropshire

38,769

North Devon District

32,893

Dorset

32,775

Northumberland

31,309

County of Herefordshire

30,275

South Lakeland District

30,216

Mid Devon District

25,625

Derbyshire Dales District

22,699

Somerset West and Taunton District

20,117

Teignbridge District

19,349

Staffordshire Moorlands District

18,954

South Hams District

18,554

Wiltshire

17,459

County Durham

16,934

Eden District

16,836

Wealden District

16,060

Harrogate District (B)

14,916

  1. The full list of local authority areas with potential for natural regeneration can be made available on request.
  2. Friends of the Earth is an international community dedicated to the protection of the natural world and the wellbeing of everyone in it. We bring together more than two million people in 75 countries, combining people power all over the world to transform local actions into global impact. For more information visit: friend​softheearth​.uk follow us at @friends_earth, or like our Facebook page. 
  3. Rewilding Britain wants rewilding to flourish – to tackle the climate and extinction crises, reconnect people with nature, and inspire people through new opportunities. See rewild​ing​bri​tain​.org​.uk.

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