Written evidence submitted by Rewilding Britain (TPW0027)

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

We do not believe that the UK Government’s targets for forestry expansion and coverage are ambitious enough to address the urgency of ecological crises in terms of either their scale or pace of change proposed. For example, 25 Year Environment Plan only made a commitment to increase woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% by 2060. And the England Tree Strategy only proposes to increase tree planting to 30,000 ha a year by 2025. These targets are woefully inadequate.

We urgently need to see an expansion of nature’s recovery across Britain to match the scale of the threats from accelerating climate heating and species extinction. Rewilding Britain would therefore like to see clear and ambitious targets for increasing woodland cover that match the scale and pace of change required. We are calling for a doubling of UK woodland cover from the current 13% to 26% by 2030.

The need for a rapid upscaling of woodland creation raises the question of how this additional woodland area should be created. Most assessments talk about tree planting as if manual establishment of trees by humans is the only way that woodland can be created. But if the ambition is to create diverse, climate-resilient natural forests and woodlands, tree planting is not the only – or even the best – way.

Evidence suggests that allowing woodlands to regenerate naturally could massively increase the scale of woodland creation across Britain at a fraction of the cost of tree planting. If we let them, trees will plant themselves in their many millions over much of Britain. This will create natural forests and woodlands better able to soak up carbon dioxide, support wildlife, and adapt to a changing climate. Imported tree diseases, plastic tree guards, management costs and soil carbon loss would all be reduced. Britain’s precious native woodland habitats, such as our temperate rainforests, would also be able to expand naturally across their range.

Doubling woodland cover from 13 per cent to at least 26 per cent by 2030 is achievable partly through a rapid expansion of the area of ‘woodland in the making’ where young woodlands are regenerating and growing into the natural forests and wildwoods of the future. We propose a Three Step Natural Regeneration Hierarchy as a practical model for decision making. This should be part of a broader rewilding approach where species-rich mosaics of woodland, scrub and grassland habitats are allowed to regenerate over large landscapes. The hierarchy starts with natural regeneration as the default approach, with tree planting as a support option where the natural regeneration of diverse habitats will not happen without it:

        Step 1 - Let nature lead: Allow natural regeneration as a default approach unless a natural mix of trees and shrubs are unable to establish or would take too long to arrive

        Step 2 - Give nature a hand: Kick-start the process by assisting natural regeneration if needed

        Step 3 - Plant trees: Plant locally sourced tree saplings only where still considered necessary


Natural regeneration is the most cost-effective method of woodland expansion, as well as delivering additional biodiversity, ecosystem, and climate benefits. Given sufficient seed sources and suitable site conditions, trees will plant themselves in their millions for free, and over as large an area of land as we are willing to spare. However, natural regeneration cannot therefore be considered in isolation, it must be part of a wider discussion about integrated land use change that supports both resilient ecosystems and communities.

For all approaches, but particularly for the second and third steps where the most active intervention is required, a significant increase in funding is crucial. This should focus on coordinated land management support payments that take an integrated approach across the rural economy including farming and forestry. Provision should also be made for training of land managers, silviculturalists, ecologists, and volunteers, as well as support for UK nurseries to expand their local sourcing and growing to meet ambitious targets and reduce reliance on imported stock.

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

We need to fundamentally review how we “plan” our countryside and link this to a common understanding of what we’re asking of the land into the future. At the moment we have a very uneven and uncoordinated land-use planning and regulatory process. We have (at least) 3 different process/systems - agriculture is fairly lightly regulated, woodland creation is fairly robustly regulated by Forestry Commission or equivalents (but little Local Authority involvement), renewable energy development is regulated by the Local Authority under planning. Scotland has a Land Use Strategy and is proposing to establish regional land use partnerships. England deals with issues separately e.g. through Nature Recovery Partnerships and Local Enterprise Partnerships. What is needed overall are locally led integrated Land Use Plans across the rural economy including farming and forestry that deliver benefits for people, nature and climate.

Within this we would like to see a significant increase in investment in natural regeneration from public and private financing within a supportive regulatory framework. Current funding for trees, woodland creation and forestry is complicated and uncoordinated. And yet the multiple long-term benefits of natural forests and woodlands far outweigh the upfront costs.

Integrated land management payments – for example, the future Environmental Land Management Scheme and devolved nation equivalents – should explicitly support and incentivise natural woodland regeneration and nature-enriching land uses that sustain rural livelihoods. In our report ‘Rewilding and Climate Breakdown’ we propose how these payments can be structured to reflect carbon sequestration and biodiversity enhancement value in different restored ecosystems including woodland. This should be supported through a coordinated regulatory approach, enabling funding mechanisms and straightforward administrative requirements.

Current policy and practice in both agriculture and conservation is also counterproductive, discouraging and preventing the natural regeneration that would enable a vast expansion of rich and diverse wooded habitats. The reaction of many across Britain to scrub is likely to be a primary reason natural regeneration fails. In some rare circumstances removing scrub can safeguard specific species of conservation concern, but in general scrub is a key transition phase of regenerating woodland. It is also an important habitat in its own right. If we can learn to embrace scrub, many more trees will plant themselves and establish successfully.

As well as rewarding farmers for agroforestry and tree planting, future policy should enable land managers to leave wilder areas unmanaged for nature.

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

See answer 2 for the need to take an integrated approach to land management with and across the four nations.

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

We need to set more ambitious targets to double woodland cover by 2030 and back these up with coordinated policy, regulatory and funding support. In order to meet these higher targets, and based on lessons learnt from not meeting previous relatively unambitious targets, we need to at least:


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?


Using natural regeneration as a default approach, with tree planting as a support option, can make a significant contribution to the expansion of forest and woodland habitats in Britain in a way that delivers both climate and biodiversity benefits. And yet natural regeneration is barely mentioned in UK government and devolved nation policies. While recognising the important role that commercial forestry has in the sustainable production of timber, we would like to see an increased emphasis on the expansion potential of natural and semi-natural forests and woodlands which are not primarily intended for commercial timber extraction. Woodland wildlife is dependent on native tree species, and as the Woodland Trust states: ‘The UK does not have the time or resources to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises separately’3.

Natural regeneration is the process by which plants and woodlands establish naturally –seeds distributed by the wind, birds and animals, by spreading root suckers and other natural processes. There are some key advantages to natural regeneration as compared to planting trees:     


These multiple and interconnected benefits demonstrate how important it is that we develop integrated Land Use Plans across the rural economy including farming and forestry that deliver coordinated benefits for people, nature and climate. We need to take a long-term, holistic approach rather than prioritising specific or sectoral policy objectives.

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?

We would like to see an integrated approach to land use that: protects existing natural forest; massively expands natural woodland regeneration; and incentivises high nature value land uses that maximise species diversity and sustain rural livelihoods.

November 2020

[1] Bradfer-Lawrence, upcoming, results referred to in “RSPB Woodlands for Climate and Nature” webinar. Oct 2020.

[2] Lewis, S. et al, 2019: 'Regenerate natural forests to store carbon', Nature, 568, 25-28