Restoring our woods: the mind boggling challenge ahead

4 Sep 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Sep 2020

Climate scientists and governments across the globe agree that key to tackling climate change is planting more trees.

This message has got through to the general public and there is widespread support for a leafier, healthier environment that re-connects us with nature and helps stave off catastrophe.

What is less debated is what that would mean in practice, specifically:

How many trees/woods do we need to plant;

Where they would be;

The impact of this on our economy;

The impact on farming and farmer’s livelihoods;

How we would pay for it all.

After all there is a lot more to this than encouraging people to plant saplings in their gardens. What we need to achieve is re-building our broken ecosystems. Across the UK 56% of species are in decline and 15% threatened with extinction. Biodiversity needs space to flourish. To help restore our natural environment that is going to require whole woods and forests and where would they go?

Let’s start with a couple of maps. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has produced one to show Northern Ireland’s existing woodland. For lovers of trees this is X certificate stuff. A land which centuries ago was blanketed in forest now has just 8% tree cover. That’s the lowest in Europe, save Iceland.

This second one shows the areas that could potentially be forested. It shows 58% of land has the potential to be woodland, a further 8% could be with possible constraints, a further 23% is not suitable (presumably areas above the tree line etc). Just 3% of Northern Ireland comprises urban areas. So there’s more than enough suitable land.

But it is not as simple as that. The vast majority of this is agricultural land – for the planting of crops and the grazing of animals. That’s the primary reason why the forests were cut down in the first place and, after all, we are no longer hunter gatherers.  

So the question becomes how we balance farming requirements with the imperative to grow woodland and forest?

And how much land should be restored to its natural, wooded state?

The UK Committee on Climate Change recommends that forest cover should be 19% by 2050. That’s 4.6 million hectares. To get an idea of the scale of this that’s 19,305 square miles or 8.2 million football pitches. And to put the task into even sharper focus Northern Ireland is just 1.4 million hectares.

For those who prefer to think of this in terms of trees you need to plant between 1,000 and 2,500 per hectare of new forest that’s 2,450,000,000 trees.

To make this work well tree cover would not just include new and existing woods and forests but also widened hedgerows to create corridors for wild life to travel between them. In addition there would be widespread planting to mitigate flood risks. One recent survey found that water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. This means the water doesn’t run straight off surfaces to cause flooding havoc downstream.


So where can these enormous stretches of woodland be planted?

We can’t just go around ploughing up crops and prime farming land to plant trees.

Environmentalists agree that the initial focus needs to be on what is categorised as “low grade” rough grazing land.

 According to the landmark Lay of the Land report 95% of farmland provides grass and rough grazing in Northern Ireland and 69% qualifies as Less Favoured Area. Our farms are heavily dependent on subsidies: for every pound earned by Northern Ireland farmers, 83 pence comes from direct Common Agricultural Policy support.

Central to the report are the disconnects between the way that land is used and a healthy environment. Farmers are pressured by an aggressive commercial environment to destroy habitats and eco-systems – what some call “farming to the fence”. This in turn creates distrust between environmentalists and farmers, groups who need to become allies and partners in forging a better future. There should not be a conflict between farming and nature, they are co-dependent.

Herein lies part of the solution. Given the inherent unprofitability of the worst categories of land once the UK has left the European Union new forms of subsidy can be provided, ones which properly reward farmers for converting parts of their land to woods and to extend and widen hedgerows.

Critically this could and should encourage farmers to be seen as custodians of the land for the public good, and for them to be paid for helping us reach carbon targets.

Astonishingly  50% of crops go to animal rather than human food. If we ate fewer animals we’d need less food for them and less grazing space for them. We don’t need to cut  out meat altogether, but eating the same amount as our grandparents did would be better for us. This requires a major public information campaign backed by subsidies for healthier food.

Next there’s the option of requiring very large landowners to devote a percentage of their land to woodland. Other countries do this by enacting laws to prevent landowners from chopping down forests on their land. In the UK similar laws could be introduced the other way around, to enforce planting on the 1% of wealthy people and corporations who own 50% of the land.

As for urban planting, there are very few areas so densely urbanised that planting more trees would not be an option. And they bring with them many benefits, not just in terms of helping to prevent flooding but also in making the air healthier and providing cool and shade in the summer. And planting new woods near to towns and cities would provide places for local people to enjoy nature.

The impact on the economy is more likely to be positive than negative. A concerted tree planting campaign on the massive scale required will boost the economy, providing jobs, especially in rural areas, and further down the line a boost to tourism. Paying farmers to forest land can be structured so that it provides them with more income than marginally profitable grazing. And the benefits to mental and physical health by re-connecting citizens to nature will also feed straight back into the economy.

But before we get there we urgently need to commission a series of studies across the UK to prioritise where new woods should be and how they can be linked together. Nowhere is this more urgently required than in Northern Ireland where the Forestry Commission’s latest strategy was published in 2006.

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