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UK tree planting is being ‘outpaced’ by the number lost in climate change events

Forestry experts have warned that more frequent storms like Franklin and Eunice could compromise the UK’s tree planting and net zero targets.

The “already-inadequate” rate of tree planting in the UK is being outpaced by the number lost to climate change-driven events like storms and flooding, experts have claimed. 

Following back-to-back storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin, forestry experts have said that more frequent storm events threaten to compromise the UK’s tree planting and climate targets if losses are not compensated for.

“The risk is that we simply won’t make either our tree planting or climate targets,” Jon Stokes, director of trees, science and research at the Tree Council said. 

Following storm Arwen in November 2021, Scottish Forestry estimated around 4,000 hectares were lost in Scotland – equivalent to around eight million trees. 

Subsequent storms since then have caused further damage, though the impact of the most recent February storms is yet to be calculated.

Damage has been particularly severe this winter due to the direction of the winds, Stokes explained.

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“This winter has been characterised by many northerly and north-easterly winds. These are particularly damaging to UK trees which have mainly developed to be braced to the prevailing winds from the southwest.”

The UK government pledged to escalate tree planting to 30,000 hectares per year by the end of parliament in 2024 – equivalent to roughly 90 million trees. Around 7,000 hectares of this will be planted in England. 

Planting rates have slowed down in recent years, however, declining steadily from an average of around 25,000 hectares per year in 1989 to around 10,000 by 2010. In 2020, the government failed to meet its target of planting 5,000 hectares annually.

Paul de Zylva, senior nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the government’s tree planting targets are “already inadequate”, with more frequent storms threatening to weaken them even further. 

He said: “7,000 hectares is a modest target, and that’s being generous. But it falls way short of what’s needed if we’re going to reap the benefits of planting more trees.

“For every tree planted you probably need to plant three more because you’ll lose at least one of them.”

The Tree Council has called on the government to commit to a “net” tree planting target to compensate for the millions of trees lost to pests, storms and diseases each year.

It also said that more thought should be given to how new planting areas are structured, suggesting that more shrubs on the outer margins of woodland could “act as a protective layer that prevents wind from entering a woodland and damaging trees”.

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One upside of the recent storm damage is that it offers an opportunity to practice natural regeneration where trees have fallen, De Zylva said.

“If you leave a fallen tree to decay it will support all sorts of other species – so a tree loss could still be an important natural habitat.”

Both Friends of the Earth and the Tree Council have called for a redoubling of efforts to plant and adequately care for trees to keep the UK’s net zero target in reach.

“It is The Tree Council’s hope that this winter’s loss will galvanise the nation to do more for trees,” Stokes said. 

A Defra spokesperson said:

“The Forestry Commission is still gathering information on the extent of the damage to woodlands, but we do not anticipate any significant loss of woodland area. We are confident that we are on track to meet the UK-wide target of planting 30,000ha per year by the end of this Parliament.

“We are committed to ensuring more trees go in the ground across the UK, in line with our 25 Year Environment Plan and commitments to reach net zero by 2050.”

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