Natural regeneration

Creag Meagaidh SBP MH
Natural regeneration at Creag Meagaidh - Mark Hamblin/

13% of Britain has tree cover

compared to 40% of the EU area and 46% of Europe as a whole

When we talk about expanding woodland and tree cover, sometimes we jump on tree planting as the solution. It certainly has a role to play, but nature is an old hand at planting trees and usually does it better.

Letting nature expand woodlands naturally:

  • is cost-effective
  • reduces disease risk
  • eliminates the need for plastic tree guards
  • creates healthier woodlands 

Why more trees

Trees store carbon, reduce flood risk, support loads of wildlife, give us food and medicine and a whole lot more. Read our 20 amazing things that trees do.

The benefits of trees are boosted when they get together to form woodlands and forests. In fact, woodlands are critical habitats for wildlife and mitigating climate change, but only 13% of the UK’s land has any sort of tree cover. That compares with 40% of the EU area and 46% of Europe as a whole.

Conifers account for around one half (51%) of the UK woodland area, although this proportion varies from around one quarter (26%) in England to around three quarters (74%) in Scotland. Native and ancient woodland covers only 3% of the UK’s land.

So…we need more trees and woodland. And at Rewilding Britain, we believe we need as much natural woodland as possible.

“We call on the restoration community, forestry experts and policymakers to prioritize the regeneration of natural forests over other types of tree planting — by allowing disturbed lands to recover to their previous high-carbon state.”
Simon L. Lewis et al
'Regenerate natural forests to store carbon' Nature (April 2019)

Read our report

Reforesting Britain: why natural regeneration should be our default approach to woodland expansion
Why natural regeneration?

Natural woodlands tend to be:

  • More complex, which increases biodiversity
  • More adaptable and therefore more climate resilient
  • More effective at absorbing and storing carbon
How does natural regeneration work?

Nature distributes seeds in a variety of ways — carried by the wind, birds and other animals (on their fur, in their hooves, via their dung or poo).

Having a seed source is key. Most natural regeneration takes place within a couple of hundred metres of existing trees, even for highly mobile seeds like birch.

Reducing grazing pressure is one of the most important elements in encouraging natural regeneration. In southwest Norway, when intense grazing stopped natural regeneration took hold and snowballed over the course of a century. You can read more examples below.

Note: The success of natural regeneration depends on many factors such as soil condition, levels of existing vegetation, ground disturbance and natural protection of seedlings

What are the challenges?
  • The pace and process of natural regeneration are complex and unpredictable – it depends on previous land use, condition of the soil, existing vegetation and the presence of seed source
  • Financial support across the UK for expanding woodlands favours tree planting
  • Many areas of Britain lack seed source (especially upland areas that have carried sheep over centuries) so planting is needed to provide seed source or to enhance species diversity
  • Thorny scrub, such as blackberry and hawthorn, protects young trees and help them to grow, but scrub has often been viewed as unsightly and something to remove from the landscape.
So what can we do?

We should make natural regeneration our default approach to natural woodland expansion while recognising it won’t be suitable in all conditions. Tree planting may be needed to kick start the natural regeneration process. In some circumstances it may be the best or only option. We should also learn to love scrub.

We are calling for:

  1. Natural regeneration as the default approach to woodland expansion
  2. Double woodland cover by 2030 – from 13% to 26%
  3. Incentivise natural regeneration within an integrated approach to land use change

We suggest a Three-Step Natural Regeneration Hierarchy for landowners looking to expand tree cover and woodland:

Read more about the Natural Regeneration Hierarchy on p22 of our report (direct link to PDF)

Examples of natural regeneration
Creag Meagaidh SBP MH
Natural woodland is regenerating naturally at Creag Meagaidh in Scotland following a dramatic reduction in grazing pressure from deer over decades
River Liza Ennerdale high res c National Trust Images Joe Cornish
Wild Ennerdale is working to restore natural processes on a large scale, which includes natural tree regeneration
Mar Lodge naturalregen Susan Wright
The rebirth of a pine forest is happening naturally at the Mar Lodge where baby scots pine are bursting forth in all sorts of places
Norway birch aspen openscree
Birch and aspen naturally colonising open scree in south west Norway, which has seen incredible levels of natural tree regeneration
Showing the natural regeneration of an arable field at Knepp in Sussex 2001-2018. When farming stopped in this field, nature came back. The dominant tree species recolonising this field is sallow (hybrid goat, white and gray willows).

How should we expand our woodlands?

Natural regeneration has a key role to play. Find out what that means.

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