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UK’s woodlands pushed to crisis point by a ‘barrage’ of threats, says Woodland Trust

Written by on 14 April 2021

The UK’s woodlands are facing a “barrage” of threats such as habitat damage, climate change and nitrogen pollution that is pushing them to crisis point.

A new study by the Woodland Trust claims that not nearly enough is being done to create resilient native woodlands, protect and restore existing woods and put individual trees back in the landscape, with just 7% of the country’s native woodland in good ecological condition.

It said that efforts to tackle climate change were being undermined by a failure to address the problems confronting woodlands and forests.

Woods and trees face a barrage of threats including imported diseases, invasive plants and direct loss of woodland to development, while what remains is fragmented, the report said.

The report says just 7% of the country's native woodland in good ecological condition. Image: The report says just 7% of the country’s native woodland is in good ecological condition

All woodlands in England, and most in other parts of the UK, exceed harmful levels on nitrogen pollution, changing the natural make-up of the habitat by damaging delicate lichens and helping grass outcompete wildflowers.

And climate change is shifting the pattern of the seasons, so spring is happening around 8.4 days earlier, hitting wildlife such as blue tits which can find their breeding cycles now mismatch their food supply for chicks.

The government has plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 across the UK to tackle climate change.

The amount of woods has grown slowly in recent years to cover 13.2% of the UK’s land area, with around half of it made up of native habitat including ancient woodland, and the other half largely non-native conifer plantations.

The government says it plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 Image: The government says it plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025

But wildlife that make their home in woods have seen steep declines, with woodland birds down 29% since 1970, butterflies declining 41% since 1990 and plants down by 18% since 2015, the report warns.

The Trust’s director of conservation and external affairs Abi Bunker said there was “no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline”.

And she warned: “We take them for granted because of their longevity, they are resilient and they have been resilient over millennia, some of them, and hundreds of years, but there’s only so much they can cope with.

“They are approaching crisis point, and we need – even if just for our own survival as a human race – to take note and do something about it now.”

The report draws on a wide range of data sources, from publicly available forest inventory information to citizen science projects run by the Woodland Trust, but it also warned of the need to improve evidence and monitoring of the state of the UK’s woods and trees.

A spokesperson for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “As part of our ambitious environmental programme, we have committed to increase woodland creation across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, as well as protecting existing woodlands.

“We have already announced the Nature for Climate Fund and will shortly publish our action plan for trees and woodland, which will help us meet this target by ensuring we plant new high-quality, well-managed woodlands and improve the condition and resilience of existing ones.”

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