Trees, woodlands, and rainforests are the lungs of the Earth.
They respire in the opposite way to humans: they absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit oxygen back out.
You’d think humans would be grateful for this harmonious relationship. You’d think we’d look after these oxygen giving, environmentally balancing, habitat creating wonders that are trees.
According to the latest statistics, 12 million hectares of tropical forest was chopped down in 2020. That’s roughly the size of Trinidad and Tobago in one year.
Since 1990, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been cut down. This is around the size of Fiji.
Not only does deforestation cause local damage to the environment and ecosystems, but the activity causes a large increase in carbon emissions whilst at the same time removing a natural carbon absorber over the long term. Lose-lose for the environment.
That’s happening across the world, but what about the UK?
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- The percentage of woodland cover in the UK
- The rate of deforestation in the UK
- The rate of tree replanting
- Why we need more trees
- And how many more trees do we need
What percentage of the UK is covered by woodland?
You might think the UK has quite a lot of woodland already. Unfortunately, when we look at the land cover as a whole, the coverage not good.
According to the latest 2021 figures from Forest Research, just 13% of the total land area in the UK is covered in woodland. In terms of area this is estimated to be 3.23 million hectares.
Split this up by each of the four countries in the UK and it looks like this:
- 19% total tree cover in Scotland
- 15% total tree cover in Wales
- 10% total tree cover in England
- 9% total tree cover in Northern Ireland
Percentage of woodland cover in other countries
Let’s compare these amounts to some of our closest neighbours.
In the EU, there is 40% tree cover.
In Europe as a continent, the total area covered by trees is 46%.
The likes of Sweden and Finland have huge areas of their land covered by forests, with 69% and 74% respectively.
On a global scale we are way behind too. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, forests cover 31% of total global land area.
It’s quite clear that the UK is severely under-forested when compared to other countries. Let’s be honest, 13% woodland cover is a miserable amount.
There are two main reasons for the large-scale disappearance of woodlands in the UK. The first is agricultural revolution that converted large swathes of forests into farmland.
And the second is urban expansion and human development. The fact that the UK is a small country anyway with a high population has exacerbated the issue.
Is there deforestation in the UK?
Does the low percentage of woodland cover in the UK mean we’re seeing deforestation in the UK?
The answer is yes, we are seeing deforestation over here.
Deforestation in the UK may not be at the scale of tree loss in the tropics or elsewhere in the world, but trees are being unsustainably chopped down every day in the UK for industry and agriculture. This is why many people opt to buy reclaimed timber and shop local.
Relative to our country size, the numbers are significant. According to Global Forest Watch, the UK lost 4.15 thousand hectares (kha) of natural forest in 2020. In plantations (where trees are purposely planted and managed), forest loss was at 18.7kha.
Using satellite images from the likes of NASA and Google, Global Forest Watch state that they’ve seen a 13% decrease in tree cover in the UK over the last 20 years.
Why do we need more trees in the UK?
Why do we need more woodland anyway? What have trees ever done for us?
Quite a lot as it happens. But we’re continuing to shoot ourselves in the foot by drastically changing the land.
We currently facing two huge human-caused crises:
- Combatting species extinction
- Addressing climate change
If you’ve read the 2021 IPCC report, or even just seen a summary, you’ll know that we’re on code red for humanity and the time left to change our direction is almost gone.
Increasing the number of trees we have in the UK could provide part of the solution or, at the very least, have a very positive impact on both of these crises.
As the Woodland Trust says, we haven’t got the time or resource to try and tackle these two huge problems separately.
Narrowing down a little bit, greater tree cover can provide an abundance of benefits for the climate and environment, ecosystems and habitats, as well as plants and animals, including us humans. Greater forest cover helps provide these benefits in number of ways.
- Carbon sink – woody vegetation and large root systems will take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it away in the woody structure of tree, but more predominantly in roots and soil systems. More carbon in soil benefits all the other vegetation around.
- Improves soil health – trees and their large root systems help to keep soil erosion at bay, whilst increasing the amount of nutrients. Without soil, we’d have pretty much nothing.
- Support wildlife – trees are a dominant, umbrella species in an ecosystem. Their trunks, roots, branches and canopies support huge amounts of biodiversity and wildlife.
- Stabilise local environments – trees and forests help to provide more stable temperatures and environments, increase climate resilience and protect communities from less extreme weather events.
- Reduce flood risk – trees and their accompanying soil systems soak up an unbelievable amount of water compared what they are often replaced with – concrete and tarmac.
- Release oxygen – oxygen breathing humans would not be here without plants. Despite the advancements in technology, we still need oxygen.
- Food and materials – woodlands will provide all sorts of food and materials over the long term when left to do what they do or managed in a sustainable manner.
- Health benefits – many studies have shown that forests and natural greenery increase wellbeing, feelings of happiness, decrease stress and make us feel calmer
When trees group together to form small stands, woodlands and forests, the benefits for wildlife and the environment increase significantly.
Forests naturally attract more animals, there’s space for different types of plants, the whole collective becomes more climate resilient, better protected and better equipped at storing carbon.
How many trees are planted in the UK each year?
At the same time as cutting trees down across the UK, we are also planting trees to replace them. Or at least, this is the plan.
The UK government has recently stated that it plans to treble tree planting rates by 2024. The UK’s overall target is to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland each year.
How are we getting on at the minute then?
Since 1998, woodland area in the UK has risen by 300,000 hectares. This is roughly a 11% increase in total woodland. This does differ from the Global Forest Watch stats given above.
However, the rate of new tree planting (as shown by the graph below) has fallen quite significantly since the 1980s.
According to the latest figures from the Forest Research, the research arm of the Forestry Commission, 13,400 hectares of newly created woodland were reported in the UK from 2020-2021. This is a slight drop from the previous year’s tree planting rates.
This figure is a combination of planted trees and those that have natural regenerated – the Forest Research doesn’t distinguish between the two in its report.
Of the 13,400 hectares of new woodland in the UK, the split per country is:
- Scotland – 79% of the total new tree planting
- England – 16%
- Northern Ireland – 2%
- Wales – 2%
As you can see the vast majority of new woodland was provided by Scotland. Without Scotland, it really would be a dire report.
England provided 2,180 hectares of new woodland, 2,340 hectares of new woodland, which is less than half of its 5000-hectare target and a drop from the previous year. The English government wants to make this 7,000 by 2024.
Over half of this new woodland came in the form of conifers, with the most popular species including Sitka spruce, Scots pine, Larches and Douglas Fir. The majority of the rest were broadleaf trees, including Oak, Beech, Birch and Ash.
Targets are great but there needs to be less talk and more action, especially as young trees will take decades to fully grow and absorb maximum carbon dioxide.
How many more trees do we need in the UK?
If we are to achieve the two-pronged goal of reversing species extinction and fighting climate breakdown, we need a lot more new tree cover than we’re currently adding.
The Woodland Trust state that we need to at least quadruple the current rate of woodland creation.
The Committee on Climate Change says that the UK needs the equivalent of 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year for the next three decades if we are to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
30,000 hectares works out at roughly 50 million trees per year (1.5 billion trees in total!) and would take the UK total tree cover up to 17%.
As you can probably work out, our current rate of 13,400 hectares of new woodland is nowhere near enough to reach this figure.
How to increase woodland areas in the UK?
How are we going to achieve this huge increase of new woodland needed?
The two main approaches to increase tree cover in the UK are:
- Rewilding / Natural Regeneration (let nature lead the way)
- Tree Planting (let humans lead the way)
Easy, some people might say, let’s just plant millions of trees every year. Job done.
50 million trees planted by hand every single year for the next 30 years sounds like a big task. And expensive.
In reality, as the figures show, this is not so easy or in fact possible. UK tree nurseries cannot supply enough assured native trees to meet the desired demand.
Some, such as Rewilding Britain, argue that physically planting millions of trees is not actually necessary when nature is so well-equipped to naturally regenerate on its own if left alone. The problem with this is that people don’t like not being in control.
You can have a closer read between tree planting vs natural regeneration on my blog post here.
Another option is to increase tree cover on farmland. Currently, only 3.3% of agricultural land area is under sustainable agroforestry. This would be an important shift and plenty of benefits to go along with it.
So, there we go. That’s the current state of woodland in the UK. The percentage of tree cover is low and theirs is a big deficit between targets and action. This needs to be improved quickly if we are to fight climate change and help restore wildlife numbers and ecological connectivity.
Increasing the percentage of tree cover can be done in two ways: natural regeneration or tree planting. If we are to increase the percentage woodland cover in the UK, it’s likely we’ll need to use both methods.