Written evidence submitted by Dr Keith J. Kirby, M.A., D.Phil., FCIEEM, FICFor (TPW0009)



I have set out my thoughts on the questions in the Committee’s call for evidence.  As background I was a forestry and woodland specialist with the Nature Conservancy Council through to Natural England (1979-20012). Since retirement I have been a visiting researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences in the University of Oxford, but this is a personal submission.

My main points are:

1. Are the targets sufficiently ambitious and realistic?

A case could be made for much larger targets, but it is better to deliver on a lower target, then work to exceed it, than to over-promise and fail to deliver.

Any major expansion of tree and woodland cover is likely to run into unexpected difficulties or hard cases early on; it is better in the long-run if these are sorted out carefully rather than being rushed because there is a perceived need to get lots of trees in the ground quickly. Many in the conservation sector are still suspicious that woodland expansion will be used as a cover for a revival of blanket afforestation schemes.  Such concerns, even if unfounded, take time to be allayed, so better a slow steady start that can be built on, rather than an initial rush that stalls.

2. Are the right structures in place to deliver UK wide targets?

Potentially yes: there are government forestry staff in all four countries who have experience of dealing with tree and woodland expansion schemes; there is a thriving private sector that can deliver projects through contracts; and owners who are prepared to see new trees and woods on their land.

However there has been a decline in the numbers of staff on the government side with good tree and woodland experience because of the splitting up of the Forestry Commission and the incorporation of its duties with other agencies in Scotland and Wales. In the process long-serving specialist forestry staff have tended to be lost and those coming in, understandably tend to have to work across a wider range of land-uses. At the local authority level, specialist tree and woodland officers have tended to be lost as a consequence of budgetary cutbacks.

There will also be a scepticism across the forestry sector about yet another strategy/initiative to increase tree and woodland cover unless it is seen to be soundly based, likely to survive more than one election period, and properly financed. Long-term commitment is needed.

3. Coordination between the four nations on forestry issues.

My impression is that coordination across the four nations is reasonably good at the moment, partly because many of the people dealing with forestry have experience of the former GB Forestry Commission, often through having worked for it. They will have a legacy of thinking at that level.

Increasingly differences are likely to emerge either in objectives or in approaches to achieving common objectives that could lead to problems, for example with biosecurity, or duplication of research effort. I was working with the Nature Conservancy Council when that was split up in 1991 and saw the drifting apart that happened with NCC’s successor bodies - English Nature, Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage. To counter such a trend there needs to be a clear mechanism whereby cross-border issues can be discussed and the will to ensure that common practices and approaches, where these are clearly appropriate, are implemented on the ground. I am not clear that such a mechanism exists at the moment.

We have seen with COVID-19 the potential for friction where each country goes its own slightly different way.

4. Why were previous ambitions for increasing tree planting in England not met?

Substantial programmes of tree and woodland expansion have been achieved in England in the past, and the factors in their success may be as enlightening for future plans as those initiatives that did not so succeed.

Woodland expansion requires land, much of which will already be under some other form of use, usually farming.

In recent decades farmland values have been supported by subsidies and even where marginal farmland and brownfield sites exist, they are often also highly valued for their nature conservation value. There is still plenty of land that could potentially be turned over to more trees and woods it is likely to be more expensive to access and to come in smaller parcels, so increasing transaction costs.

Woodland expansion and tree planting benefit from long-term commitment and confidence. It is not just putting trees into the ground; there is a need for subsequent maintenance over subsequent years and decades. Such commitment and confidence is difficult to maintain in the face of changing policies and strategies every 5 years. One reason large landed estates have often been major drivers of woodland expansion is that they are used to working over long time-frames and may have the resources to do so, in the way that a small-scale farmer is not able to.

Woodland expansion and tree planting initiatives tend to be most successful where there are staff, such as project officers to promote and oversee actions. There are numerous local initiatives, up to the scale of some of the Community Forests, that were successful while they had dedicated staff to take them forward. Unfortunately, these were often on short-term (3-5 yr) contracts so that the staff themselves were always having to be looking to move on to another job. Such officers can link together schemes by different owners and help to coordinate the interests of the various stakeholders. Forestry Commission woodland officers often played a similar sort of role before their numbers were cut, such that they had to curtail the time they spent out in the field.

5. What should the Government be trying to achieve?

Most woods can contribute to a wide range of objectives, but the degree to which they contribute will vary: Kielder contributes massively to timber production and is a major recreational resource; the biodiversity value of the stands is however limited; Roudsea Wood National Nature Reserve in Cumbria contributes next to nothing in terms of timber, has some local recreation value, but is one of the most important woods for biodiversity in the country.

We should aim for a ‘mixed economy’ whereby different combinations of objectives can be met by different types of new woodland or new treescapes. However, I think these can be condensed to three broad strands: ‘economic’, ‘semi-natural’ and ‘agro-forestry’. My feeling is that this is roughly the ordering of their future extent nationally.

These strands will appeal to different groups of landowners and managers, and to different sources of funds.  Each will be appropriate to different locations. The challenge is to get the various stakeholders to work together to identify where and how much of each strand could be promoted in different regions and across the country as a whole. The Government should take a lead by challenging counties/regions etc to come up with what they can deliver across all three strands to contribute to the overall national target.

Underlying all three strands should be a requirement to meet biosecurity and plant health measures. There may be some local reduction in food production, but that should be well within what can be met by minor dietary adjustments, e.g. reductions in meat and dairy consumption to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.

There will also be a requirement to protect key natural and cultural heritage assets, although we need to recognise that some of these are likely to be at risk from climate change and other threats independent of any tree or woodland spread.

6. Are the right policies in place to appropriately protect and manage existing woodland?

Woodland protection in England is reasonably strong. It is not absolute, even for ancient woodland and veteran trees (cf HS2), our most valued biodiversity assets. However trying to strengthen the protection further could promote more challenges as to the value and justification for areas that come under threat – prove the site really is ‘ancient’. There might also develop an imbalance between the protection given to ancient woods and trees and that to other high-value biodiversity sites which could lead to perverse outcomes: otherwise a very small piece of ordinary ancient woodland might be given stronger protection than an internationally important heathland site. Stronger protection might also make landowners less willing to create new woodland if they feared that they might never be able to clear any part of it in future.

A particular concern is the threat from planned developments. A weakness with the current system has been that local authorities are not required to report on the losses of trees and woods that they effectively sanction through planning permissions. I feel that if this were the case, it would highlight where the main losses were occurring but would also make authorities more likely to try to avoid those losses.

Encouraging woodland management has proved difficult in recent decades. Management is encouraged by there being some sort of market for the produce. Markets are reasonably well-established for good quality timber; the problem is with lower quality material particularly if it is only available in small parcels.  Hence while there may often be biodiversity benefits in carrying out management in many ancient woods it does not happen (or only at a cost) because it would produce only small amounts of low-grade wood. Cooperative working can be a solution, but this generally needs some input, e.g project officers, to be successful. Moreover, projects could be developed that link development of large areas of new woodland/new treescapes with the management where appropriate of existing woods. Again, the analogy is with the large landed estates that have the scale to be involved with both new and existing woodland.


October 2020