Our UK Treescapes Programme Ambassadors welcome the recent Woodland Trust report ‘State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’ and highlight the need for interdisciplinary research to provide knowledge and data to safeguard and expand the UK’s treescapes, benefitting environment and society.
State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021
We greatly welcome the Woodland Trust’s recent report ‘State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’. It is an important and timely contribution to the debate around safeguarding the UK’s trees and woodlands and expanding its forest cover and identifies critical research gaps – many of which will be addressed by the Future of UK Treescapes programme. It presents a mixed picture of the status of our trees, woods and forests, delving beneath the headline figures to present a sober analysis of the many threats that face them.
The report presents an evidence-led analysis and while the story it tells draws authoritatively on the most up to date research (much commissioned by government) it rightly emphasises the many gaps in our understanding of the status of our woodland, nature and the benefits these assets provide. As the report points out, the challenge is not just to plant more trees, but also effectively safeguard what we already have.
Gaps in data and evidence
It argues that we still do not know enough about the ecological condition of much of our woodland area. Surprisingly, there is a continuing lack of baseline data on the current distribution of tree species and particularly the extent and status of veteran trees and trees outside woodland – in the latter case, that widely distributed population of trees (often in decline due to old age and disease) that define large swathes of UK farmed landscape and are found in our towns, cities and parks. We also lack data and understanding of levels of soil carbon in ancient woodland and the benefits of woodland expansion for managing flood risk.
These and other gaps in evidence urgently need to be addressed if we are to have policies and management interventions that are properly designed and effectively targeted. Good science must inform policy decision making, but also underpin and help justify the very large investments that government and stakeholders will be required to make in woodland expansion and safeguarding trees in the decades ahead. The report is realistic about the scale of the policy challenge. It notes that we need to be accurately informed and aware of the risks posed by invasive plants, pests and diseases, climate change and development, and how our trees and woodlands can be safeguarded or made resilient in the face of these threats. But it also underlines the risks associated with large-scale tree planting and the need to think carefully about mitigating these through regulated sourcing of tree saplings and expansion of home-grown stock.
The Trust puts people as well as nature at the heart of its analysis and makes a welcome plea for more social science research into the benefits individuals and communities derive from trees, woods and forests. The number of people with easy access to woodland has declined since 2016, for instance, and more work is needed to quantify and understand both the benefits of access to woodland and how to address inequalities of access.
Equally, we need more research if we are to know how best to motivate and inspire those who will be required to plant the trees and manage our woodlands in the most sustainable ways possible. While farmland is likely to be targeted for some of the most significant woodland expansion under government programmes, persuading farmers to create and care for woods effectively will be a considerable challenge. Getting the incentives and knowledge transfer right will require better understanding of the behavioural aspects of this revolution in land use, as will the broader agenda of getting farmers to shift to ‘farming carbon’.
The Future of UK Treescapes Programme
The Future of UK Treescapes programme, a major new initiative funded by NERC, AHRC, ESRC, Defra and the Welsh and Scottish Governments, is designed to address these and other knowledge gaps. As the priorities for action and evidence gaps outlined in ‘The State of the UK’s Trees and Woods 2021’ suggest, an interdisciplinary approach is required to contend with these issues – a need recognised within the Future of UK Treescapes programme.
The programme is closely tied to the rapidly emerging policy agenda relating to our ‘treescapes’ and will bring together environmental science and ecology, economics, social science, and the arts and humanities. This drawing together will significantly expand our understanding of the current state of trees and woodland, the threats facing them and the benefits gained for society from better future management of the woodland resource. These issues need to be addressed in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way – no one discipline will have all the answers – and research will need to be undertaken in consultation and partnership with key stakeholders (including policymakers, woodland and tree managers, NGOs, landowners and citizens). We need to look both at the specifics and detail, but also use creative and visionary approaches to take a step back and imagine what our future treescapes could and should look like.
The first round of funded Future of UK Treescapes projects will be announced this summer and we are looking forward to working with the Woodland Trust and other stakeholders to ensure that the outcomes from the programme contribute to both safeguarding existing woods and ensuring that future treescape expansion maximises the benefits for carbon sequestration, nature recovery and society.
The Future of UK Treescapes programme Ambassadors, Professor Clive Potter and Dr Julie Urquhart, bring extensive experience of interdisciplinary research across the natural and social sciences, economics and the arts and humanities. Their role is to champion the programme through extensive engagement with stakeholders and policy makers, and to support funded projects through knowledge exchange activities and dissemination.