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
Read on for more or read our report — Reforesting Britain: why natural regeneration should be our default approach to woodland expansion
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.
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
You can read about the evidence that supports this in our report, Reforesting Britain: why natural regeneration should be our default approach to woodland expansion
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:
- Natural regeneration as the default approach to woodland expansion
- Double woodland cover by 2030 – from 13% to 26%
- 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
How should we expand our woodlands?
Main image credit: Natural regeneration at Creag Meagaidh — Mark Hamblin/scotlandbigpicture.com
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