Written evidence submitted by The Earl of Caithness (TPW0021)


Declaration of interest

I was a Chartered Surveyor and have a lifelong interest in Forestry


1) Are the UK Government’s targets for increasing forestry coverage, and tree planting, for England and the UK sufficiently ambitious and realistic?

2) Are the right structures in place to ensure that the UK wide target for increasing forestry coverage is delivered?

One cannot answer these questions until questions 5 and 6 have been answered so I will come back to them later.


3) How effective is the co-ordination between the four nations on forestry issues, including biosecurity, plant health and other cross-border issues?

No comment

4) Why were previous ambitions for increasing tree planting in England not met and what lessons should be learned?

The increase in our woodlands in the last century has been very successful. The area on which trees are grown has tripled. Tree planting is not the problem although more should be planted. The problem is there is no Government policy after planting. The reason is that forestry has not been a priority for many years. No Government has focussed properly on what the policy objective should be and how it should be achieved. This is compounded by Governments thinking in a general election timeframe at best, whereas forestry is a long-term business - usually a lot more than the 40 years needed to grow some softwoods. It is that length of time that is a major problem for Governments and landowners. At Agricultural College I was taught about growing trees for pit props needed in the mines and as a surveyor arranged for woods to be planted for that now non-existent market. The lesson to be learned is that there is much more to forestry than just planting trees.

5) In relation to increasing forestry coverage in England, what should the Government be trying to achieve? For example, how should the following policy objectives be prioritised?

    -  Mitigating or adapting to climate change;

    -  Promoting biodiversity and nature recovery;

    -  Increasing biosecurity and plant health;

    -  Improving human well-being and health;

    -  Protecting natural and cultural heritage;

    -  Food security;

   -  Creating commercial opportunities from forestry, tourism and recreation; and

    -  Any other priorities?

The current lack of a coherent forestry policy is a national disgrace. It is depressing that. despite the amount of land under woodland tripling in the last century, the UK is the world’s second largest net importer of timber. Countries with less woodland cover import less than we do. Too much of the timber we grow is unfit for commercial purposes and is poor amenity woodland.

The scientific evidence is clear and combatting climate change should be the driver of a new forestry policy. That means more planting is needed but clinging to the failed and discredited ways of the past is a route to continued failure. Carbon capture must be the priority, but trees only draw in significant amounts of carbon dioxide when they make it to an age of 20-30 years. Thus, it is not just the planting of trees that matters; the maintenance of them thereafter is just as important. Trees face two, often inter-connected, hazards. One is natural causes and the other is us humans. Natural causes include droughts, storms, pests and diseases and these are often exacerbated by our behaviour – or lack of it. The human cause is planting single species woodlands and then not maintaining the plantation thereafter. It is well known that when trees are not looked after, they suffer stress and, in that state, just like us humans, they are much more susceptible to the natural hazards mentioned above. Lack of maintenance becomes a vicious circle of deterioration.

Many trees, particularly newly planted ones, die through lack of management. Management costs money and there is little Government help with these costs. Although timber prices have increased a little, much of our woodland is of such poor quality as not to be profitable when felled. It is an indictment of this lack of understanding that 58% of our woodlands and 80% of our broadleaf woodlands (Forestry Commission figures) are managed badly, or not at all. If a landowner is not going to make a profit from his/her woodland, then the vital management work will not get done and the timber will not be of commercial use or value. Some owners are also implementing non-intervention management because of a misguided intention to help wildlife. However, there is strong evidence from studies of plants, insects and birds that some of our best-loved woodland wildlife is in crisis because of lack of good management. The richness of woodland plant species has declined by 19%, woodland butterfly populations by 74% and birds by 32%. Poor or no management is putting at risk not only our biosecurity but our biodiversity.

In order to allow trees to become naturally more resistant to pests and diseases as well as a more commercial and valuable crop, it is long overdue that we move to a more sustainable tree management system. We must work with nature and avoids large concentrations of young, dense, pole-staged stands with low air movement and potential for high build-up of fungal spores and pests. We must also diversify what we grow. Some 77% of our broadleaf woodlands are still represented by only five species, and disease is currently wiping out one of them, ash. Under the present system there is, regrettably, very little chance of growing commercial hardwoods in this country, which once produced the finest stands of timber in the world, because of diseases and pests, especially the grey squirrel, as well as lack of management. Unless Government policy changes, boxes will be ticked that x million trees have been planted, but a lot of money will be wasted on planting trees only for them to die or be used as firewood.

Planting the same species of tree in straight line blocks as demanded by the Forestry Commission has been a terrible mistake both for nature and the economics of forestry. Unless one grows the nature unfriendly blocks of Sitka Spruce, the only possible way to grow commercial timber on an ongoing basis is to ban clear felling and manage our woodlands on a mixed species and uneven aged basis, also known as Irregular Silviculture. This is carried out in many areas around the world, but it has been heresy to the Forestry Commission, which has made sure such a system is practiced little in this country. Thankfully companies like SelectFor are now following these principles on the woodlands they manage and producing healthier, nature friendly woodland that is also economic. We have one the best climates in the world for growing trees but few of the skills needed to do it properly. It should be a Government priority that a substantial training and skills programme is implemented to complement a change of management policy. Landowners will need to be incentivised to implement the new policy.

6) Are the right policies and funding in place to appropriately protect and manage existing woodlands in England? How will prospective changes to policy and legislation effect this?

Quite clearly the right policies and funding are not in place. What policies there have been, have been short term, did not understand the nature of forestry and implemented by the Forestry Commission, either in their own woodlands, or by exercising their control over private woodlands. This organisation, which has been so costly to the taxpayer, has done much more harm than good. Its structure is flawed because it remains an active producer of timber as well as the regulator, prosecutor, judge and jury of private sector forestry in this country and has stifled the private sector. There are many excellent people in the Forestry Commission, but its ethos is not suited for today. It should remain the organisation through which the Government implements its policy and provide scientific advice, but it should not remain producer, prosecutor, judge and jury. The private sector, properly regulated, should be the provider of new woodlands and given much more encouragement and freedom to plant and grow trees in different ways to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

1) Are the UK Government’s targets for increasing forestry coverage, and tree planting, for England and the UK sufficiently ambitious and realistic?

2) Are the right structures in place to ensure that the UK wide target for increasing forestry coverage is delivered?

As will be noted from the above a target for increasing tree planting further is only part of the problem facing forestry and not the most important one. Unless the management regime is changed there is every likelihood, we will end up with the planting target being met and in a few years’ time a lot of empty plastic tubes and scrub timber. The right structures are not in place to rectify the situation. Whatever the increase target is, it will be essential for the stock to be of the right quality and certified as disease free. That will be a short-term problem.

The land in the UK is finite and for many areas there are many competing uses such as farming, houses, industry, roads, infrastructure and forestry. In England there is no land use strategy as there is in the devolved nations and that will lead to significant mistakes being made that will afflict future generations. It would be helpful to have such a strategy so that tree planting is encouraged across the country and land is earmarked for that. Leaving the EU, and the shackles of the Common Agricultural Policy, gives the Government the opportunity to look at farms and estates holistically and include forestry within farming. For the first time, grant regimes will hopefully be structured to encourage farmers to plant trees and not just in plantations. There is a huge opportunity for agroecology but doing this effectively will involve a steep learning curve for most farmers. There is of course a problem on farmland subject to long term tenancy arrangements where woodland is usually excluded from the tenancy and retained by the landlord. Changing the management policy to Irregular Silviculture is also good for biodiversity and has the added benefit of encouraging more self-seeding of trees and a continuous supply of timber from the same area without having to clear fell and replant.

Whatever the Committee recommends I urge it to heed the wise words of Tony Kirkham, the head of the arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in all its recommendations to the Government. When referring to the great storm of 1987, he said:

“The golden rule that I got from the storm was that you’ve got to copy nature and run with her and you’ll succeed.”

That is not what current policy does and that is why we fail.


November 2020