Nic Wilson

As part of National Tree Week (23 November – 1 December), this blog by volunteer and nature writer, Nic Wilson, explores the critical importance of woodland creation and conservation as a key nature-based solution to climate change.

In response to climate change and ecological breakdown, the UK needs to significantly extend its tree cover. Such expansion has the potential to capture and store carbon, support rare and declining woodland wildlife and deliver other benefits. As one of the least wooded countries in Europe, there is an urgent need for funding and support to be made available to deliver the woodland expansion and tree planting required to meet the UK’s net zero commitments, whilst helping wildlife to recover.

 Carbon sequestration

The Committee on Climate Change’s net zero advice recommends an expansion of UK woodland cover from the current 13% to up to 19% by 2050.[1] Trees play an essential role in the carbon cycle, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere which is then stored in the living and woody material of the tree, in the soil and in long-lived timber products. Under the right conditions, trees can act as a net carbon sink, but it is vital to consider the composition and siting of new woodland to maximise benefits for climate and biodiversity.

 Plans for woodland expansion and more trees throughout the landscape should favour native species and feature more genetically diverse, native and mixed woodlands. Native trees, with a local and diverse set of genes, are likely to be more resilient to climate change, with lower pests and disease risks than imported stock. They are also likely to be better adapted to local soils and climate. Locally-adapted native woodland can also be created by promoting natural regeneration.

The location of new woodland areas also needs to be chosen with great care.  This will help to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, such as the widespread planting of mostly non-native Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine plantations in the uplands in the 1970s and 1980s which led to 20% of the UK’s blanket bog resource being damaged, with negative impacts on carbon storage and wildlife.

Timber production is a key part of much woodland management in the UK, but often more carbon can be stored in the soil than in the trees of temperate forests and this can be released by management activities such as harvesting, site preparation and fertilisation. Since many wood products also have a much shorter lifespan than living trees, an emphasis on storing carbon in living woodland, rather than production of timber products and biomass, could be a more cost-effective way of meeting emissions reduction targets.

Multiple Benefits

Together with tackling climate change and providing vital habitats for wildlife, woodlands and trees in the landscape can deliver a host of other benefits including water management, timber supply and benefits to health and wellbeing. How woodland is managed can make all the difference for nature. The RSPB manages just under 15,000 hectares of UK Woodland Assurance Standard certified woodland to provide habitats for wildlife and deliver many other benefits. We are also a partner in the Woodland Wildlife Toolkit project[2], which provides woodland managers with management information to help rare and declining woodland wildlife. Woodland creation is a vital part of the equation, such as the examples below from RSPB Haweswater and Abernethy reserves.

RSPB Haweswater

The reserve at Haweswater, in the Lake District, is a dramatic, varied landscape of mountains, moorland, wetland, woodland and heath. The RSPB is working in partnership with United Utilities to run our two hill farms as a viable business whilst also managing the land to improve carbon stewardship, wildlife, water quality and recreational opportunities.

Two sides of Haweswater  Photo: Lee Schofield / RSPB

The Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP) developed by United Utilities and the RSPB has included planting native trees on the reserve at Haweswater to support natural regeneration around the existing ancient oak woodland. Support from United Utilities and grant funding from a range of sources has helped plant around 150,000 trees across an area of 3000 hectares, including stock grown in our own nursery.  New planting acts as a buffer zone and will help to extend the tree cover in the future. At higher altitude the planting is currently very scattered, but in time it should form a valuable seed source to enable the natural regeneration of woodland and scrub. Work is also ongoing to establish sustainable grazing levels, which will have a positive effect on woodland regeneration.

Although the work at Haweswater is still in its initial stages, an increase in tree pipit numbers has already been seen in some of the newly planted areas, and the RSPB is currently hosting two PhDs looking at the impacts of tree planting on water services that should generate useful insights in a couple of years.

RSPB Abernethy

At Abernethy, a 15,000 hectare nature reserve situated in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, the RSPB is restoring and expanding the UK’s largest native pine forest. The RSPB has a 200-year vision to expand the forest to its natural limits, including recovery of rare montane scrub habitats, and to restructure the plantation forests into a more natural Forest. It’s estimated that a further 3,500 hectares at Abernethy could support some tree cover. Work is underway to expand the forest and create an open wooded landscape interspersed with areas of mire, grassland, rock, scree, and bog woodland.

Natural forest at RSPB Abernethy  Photo: David Tomlinson / RSPB Images

We have recently completed a woodland regeneration survey, mapping the trees that have naturally spread from the existing forest out into the open moorland. Estimates suggest that about 200,000 new native trees have appeared over the last five years and over the same timescale, about 200 hectares of new woodland has come in to existence. Additionally, a further 300 hectares of woodland, if the current rate of establishment continues, will be created over the next five years. This expansion is happening because of continued deer management and we are stepping up our efforts to allow additional regeneration and protection of existing trees into more remote parts of the site.

We continue to see the regeneration dominated by Scots pine with limited regeneration of broadleaf trees, except for rowan. Therefore, we plan to continue ‘enrichment planting’ of broadleaf trees from seeds and cuttings collected on the reserve and grown on in our onsite tree nursery. This planting will create new ‘seed sources’ of broadleaves which will seed and spread further, restoring a woodland with a more natural level of broadleaf trees in the future.

The montane (high altitude) scrub rescue project, in partnership with other Cairngorms Connect partners and with National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge, focuses on collecting cuttings and seeds from scarce montane willows and upland downy birch to grow on in our tree nursery. In combination with an increased deer control effort in the montane scrub zone, we will plant out this scrub to restore the almost lost remnants of montane scrub and help secure the future for special mountain wildlife.

[1] Committee on Climate Change (CCC). (2018). Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change.

[2] woodlandwildlifetoolkit.org.uk

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