Woodlands for the Future

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The makeup of England’s woodlands is the result of human activity over centuries. During this time woodlands have been managed under the assumption that the environment they are growing in will be relatively stable, however, this key assumption is no longer valid. The projected rate of climate change we are currently facing is unprecedented.

These centuries of management have resulted in many types of woodland having a limited species diversity – many species are grown in monoculture – and limited age structure, being dominated by relatively few tree species (five conifer species account for 88% of the softwood forests and five broadleaf species make up over 72% of the hardwood woodlands). Changes in the needs of society have resulted in many woodlands becoming neglected and no longer managed. Simultaneously, the abundance of grazing and browsing fauna has increased which has had negative impacts on the regeneration opportunities for trees and diversity and abundance of ground flora.

Trees, woodlands and forests play a key role in greenhouse gas removal, storing the carbon in wood products throughout their life, helping to manage the risk of flooding, and providing shade and cooling benefits. In addition, they are a renewable source of energy today, and a sustainable raw material for the future bio-economy. 

In recent decades, globalisation has contributed significantly to the large increase in the number of pests and diseases attacking our trees, and this, too, is compounding the challenges of adapting to a changing climate. 

Our trees, woodlands and forests can only help reduce the negative impacts of a changing climate if they are resilient to those challenges themselves, however, the current over-reliance on so few species undermines this. We need to be planting and managing trees so that they are fit for the future. This may include more frequent management interventions to enable more natural regeneration, or to make use of assisted migration where this is shown to be appropriate. (It is well documented that trees from 2° of latitude south of the area to be planted are likely to be better adapted to a future warmer UK climate.)

So what of the future?

We need to make significant changes to the species composition, structure and management of our woodlands now, to give them the best chance to survive and thrive in 50 years’ time, when we know our climate will be quite different. It may be that some species that are currently less common in British woodlands may be better adapted to future conditions. For that reason, we need to plant a wider range of tree species in the nation’s forests. We also need to plan for some species suffering more from tree health issues, as the changing climate makes them more vulnerable, or the conditions more favourable, to pests and diseases.

We recognise that different woodland management objectives require different adaptation strategies and timescales. Adapting our woodlands to the future climate cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach, and diversity will be needed at the landscape level, as well as within woodlands, to mitigate risks.

While we may not know what the future will look like, it is imperative that we take reasoned actions now to increase the diversity of our plantings and adopt management strategies that will sustain this arboreal richness. 

Based on Forestry Commission information.

Doug Stephenson

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