Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma

RSPB Cymru Land Use Policy Officer, Jon Cryer, takes a look at the First Minister’s plans for a new National Forest in Wales, and the importance of planting ‘the right tree in the right place’…

Last week, Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, launched the next phase in developing the National Forest.

Mark Drakeford described the National Forest as “an ecological network running the length and breadth of Wales”, whilst Lesley Griffiths envisioned “walking alongside and under trees from north to south and east to west Wales” and delivering something akin to the Wales Coastal Path.

Whilst little is known so far about plans, the reasons for more trees in Wales are clear. Increasing woodland cover has been identified as a key element that could help us address both the climate crisis and nature crisis.

Our green and pleasant land is far from healthy. The 2016 State of Nature Report noted that 53% of UK woodland species have been in long-term decline and Wales is amongst the most nature depleted countries in the world. The State of Natural Resources Report, published by Natural Resources Wales, stated that none of our ecosystems, including woodlands, are resilient. And with less than 12% of woodland in Wales being ancient or semi-natural, it’s clear to see why woodland specialists like lesser spotted woodpeckers are suffering catastrophic declines.

In order to combat climate change the UK Committee on Climate Change suggested an increase of woodland cover from 13% to at least 17% in the UK by 2050. Wales currently sits just above the UK average with woodland cover of around 15%, which includes both native broadleaf woodlands and commercial plantations.

What do we get from a National Forest?

This depends! If planned well, a National Forest in Wales, using native species, could provide a range of benefits for nature. If designed to connect and buffer existing woodland habitats, it could protect both important woodland habitats, and the species that live there. Buffering and connecting these sites will also make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Similarly, increasing planting along rivers and increasing the number of hedgerow trees can enhance the connections between areas of woodland across the landscape, acting as corridors for wildlife.

More trees can also capture and lock up carbon, and we recently published a report which looked at how different approaches to woodland expansion can best deliver benefits for both nature and carbon.

A well-designed National Forest in Wales could deliver these and other benefits including recreation opportunities, improved health and well-being through access to green space and a sustainable timber industry. Most of these benefits can be delivered together if woodland are well designed and appropriately located, and the principle of ‘the right tree in the right place’ will be critical to delivering the maximum benefit.

The risks

Previous periods of widescale afforestation have provided us with evidence of how not to do things, and we must learn from these mistakes. Planting non-native forestry plantations in our uplands caused severe damage to our peatlands, which are important habitats for iconic species like the curlew, and crucial for capturing and storing both carbon and water. The damage has led to declines in species, increases in carbon emissions and contributed to issues with both water quality and flow.

The practice of using non-native species in upland plantations has also led to issues with tree disease. The impact of phytophora ramorum on larch trees is an example that has been particularly felt in Wales, where large numbers of trees have needed to be felled. This has an economic impact, and there is also the risk of the disease spreading to other species such as bilberry and heather, which could have big impacts on priority habitats.

Planting trees in the uplands also poses a threat to species that rely on open landscapes. Upland breeding waders like curlew, golden plover and lapwing would be affected, and even small areas of planting such as shelter belts for livestock can severely affect their ability to breed successfully, if put in the wrong place.

We now understand the risks and costs of poorly located and designed woodlands, and we must learn from these lessons.

What can we do?

RSPB Cymru will be asking Welsh Government to ensure the National Forest programme:

  • Delivers for biodiversity by protecting and connecting existing woodland habitats.
  • Goes beyond simply planting trees and incorporates funding for better management of woodlands.
  • Ensures new woodlands avoid negative impact on priority habitats and the species they support by sticking to ‘the right tree in the right place’ principle.
  • Prioritises the use of native tree species and natural regeneration to ensure new woodlands provide homes for native wildlife.
  • Goes hand in hand with a programme to restore open habitats negatively affected by previous afforestation schemes.