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Today’s blog is written by Andrew Weatherall, Principal Policy Officer for Woodlands and Forestry. He uses a couple of key issues to consider how the recently released new edition of the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) has responded to the nature and climate emergency.
The UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) sets out the approach to sustainable forestry. The latest (5th), version has just been published, 25 years after the original. This blog considers how it has changed and whether it ensures UK forest management contributes to a nature positive, net zero future.
In 1998 the first version of the UKFS was published. It has been described as ‘robust and widely welcomed’, a ‘direct response to the ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992’.
I was beginning the final year of my forestry degree in 1998. I remember a genuine mood of excitement, our lecturers telling us that this was the best, most interesting and challenging time to be embarking on a forestry career. That this new standard would help us address the three pillars of sustainability, balancing economic, environmental and social issues through multi-objective forestry.
In 1999, the first version of the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS) followed. This provided independent certification that forest and woodland management was meeting the requirements of the UKFS and thus equivalent to international standards of sustainable forest management. Both UKFS and UKWAS raised the standards of woodland management in the UK in the last 25 years.
So, the challenge is for this newest version of the UKFS to continue to raise standards. However, although our understanding of the nature and climate emergency, and the societal challenges we face has increased in the last 25 years, especially in the 6 years since the last version (UKFS 4) came out in 2017. So, to determine if this was the right decision, the key questions are:
1. What has changed in the UKFS in the last 25 years?
2. Will this latest version contribute to a nature positive, net zero future?
3. What, if anything, needs to change in the next review process?
It is not possible to analyse all the legal requirements, good practice requirements and guidelines in the UKFS in a single blog, so we will concentrate on two key issues:
1. UKFS position on planting trees on deep peats
In the 1st (1998) and 2nd (2004) editions of the UKFS (for which I only have hard copies), I can find no advice regarding tree planting on deep peats (organic soils).
The 3rd (2011) edition is digitally available, it was a major revision in style, adopting the format that we are familiar with today. The content was revised too, including a new guideline (something you should ‘consider’) for peat, stating:
‘Avoid establishing new forests on peat exceeding 50 cm depth and on sites that would compromise the hydrology of adjacent bog habitats.’
This did not change in the 4th (2017) edition, but in the new 5th (2023) edition, has become a general practice requirement (something you ’should’ comply with) and has been tweaked to:
‘New forests should not be established on soils with peat exceeding 50 cm in depth – or a depth specified in country guidance – or on sites that would compromise the hydrology of adjacent bog or wetland habitats.’
This reflected the 2021 decision by Forestry Commission, Natural England and Defra to produce guidance in England applying the precautionary principle by defining deep peat as greater than 30 cm depth. Thus one of the four countries or the UK does not permit tree planting between 30 cm and 50 cm, but the other three do.
The carbon balance and biodiversity benefits of peatlands do not respect national boundaries, the initial adverse effects of tree planting on soil carbon are well known and it is understood that the payback to bring a tree planting scheme into net carbon balance can take decades. Thus, to meet the UK Government target of net zero by 2050 (2045 in Scotland), it seems clear that we need UK wide adoption of the more precautionary approach of defining deep peat as > 30 cm and planting trees on them should not be permitted in the next iteration of the UKFS.
2. UKFS position on permitting monocultures
In 1998 and 2004, the concept of a maximum proportion for a single species was not included in the UKFS, although some advice on using mixtures, varying species in large areas, and including broadleaves in conifer woodlands was included. It is interesting to note that a design principle stated that 10-20% open space should be allowed for. The 3rd (2011) edition, was also a major revision for this topic, another new requirement stated:
‘Diversify forest composition so that no more than 75% of the forest management unit is allocated to a single species and a minimum of the following are incorporated.
- 10% open space;
- 10% of other species or ground managed for environmental objectives;
- 5% native broadleaved trees or shrubs.'
In 2017, the wording was tweaked slightly but the maximum and minimum values were maintained. In 2023, as a response to the rising impact of pests and diseases (especially the arrival and establishment of Ips typographus, a bark beetle of spruce, in southern England), the maximum of a single species has been reduced to 65%.
However, the minimum values for other components have remained unchanged and, crucially, there is still no limit on the size of a single species block. This means that, very large single species blocks are still regularly planted, especially on upland restock sites, functionally these are monocultures. If a pest or disease attacks the species that a monoculture consists of, then the whole forest area is impacted. The next review of the UKFS must lead to much diversity of tree species, use of smaller blocks and mixtures to give greater resilience
The first edition of the UKFS changed woodland management for the better in 1998. However, we now understand so much more about the nature and climate emergency, and the urgency needed to respond to it. Unfortunately, it was pre-determined for this latest review that ‘the majority of the technical content in the existing edition remains relevant’ so an opportunity to drive further improvements in the how the forest industry and woodland conservation sector can contribute to a nature positive, net zero future has been missed.
The next revision of the UKFS will appear in about 5 years’ time, like the 3rd edition in 2011, it must be a major revision, not of style, but of content. In the meantime, the eligibility criteria for forestry grants must set higher expectations for sustainable forest management than the UKFS does. The UKFS sets a minimum standard for forest management, but public funding should demand greater public benefit. For example, the 30 cm deep peat depth definition should be adopted in grant schemes across the UK to support our net zero commitments and the maximum of a single species in an application should be reduced to 50% to improve resilience in woodlands and forests for the biodiversity habitat, climate mitigation and domestic timber supply they provide.
The UK Forestry Standard
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