Tree Planting vs Natural Regeneration: What’s the Best Method To Create New UK Forest?

tree planting vs natural regeneration of woodland

There’s no doubt that the UK needs to significantly increase the number of trees we have covering the land.

Greater areas of woodlands and forests, not just in the UK but around the world, will help alleviate two main crises we are living through: incredible levels of species extinction and rapid climate change.

There are also a number of social, community and individual benefits that come from having more trees and woodland.

Do we just let nature regenerate and rewild itself or do we need to give it a hand with tree planting? Let’s take a look at the two methods.

How do we increase forests and woodland?

Tree planting has become the go-to solution to increase forested area.

Many nations have pledged to plant millions and millions of tree saplings, which is great, but is this right solution?

By vowing to physically plant such an enormous number of trees, are we underestimating nature’s own powers to regrow forests?

Let’s not forget, nature has been naturally regenerating the land with trees for millions of years. With various seed dispersal methods, trees are well-equipped and have become pretty efficient at generating large areas of woodland all on their own.

ben in forest llandiloes wales
Planted woodland. Me in Hafren Forest, Wales.

After all, natural regeneration is how the world’s great forests developed: the trees of the Amazon Rainforest, the Congo Rainforest, Daintree in Australia, the sprawling Taiga of north Eurasia, the Black Forest in Germany and Epping Forest in Essex. All these examples are primary forests that have developed through natural regeneration. 

This isn’t to say that planting trees doesn’t have a role to play in expanding forests, it’s just questioning whether it’s the best method. In natural regeneration, is there a more natural and simple way to increase woodland in the UK?

Tree Planting in the UK

Planting trees is often the preferred go-to answer of how we increase the amount of woodland in the UK.

It’s an artificial form of regeneration that involves the creation of new areas of woodland by physically planting young saplings on land that was not previously woodland.

The practice of woodland planting in the UK began in the 1600s. Any natural forests still around before the 1600s (or before 1750 in Scotland) are considered ancient woodlands. Ancient woodlands are important as they are unique environments with high levels of biodiversity and complex ecosystems.

Unfortunately, ancient woodlands now only cover 2.5% of the UK.

Benefits of tree planting

People like planting trees and I can see why.

I’ve even done it myself and it feels great. It engages local people, communities and children and is a good step to increasing environmental awareness. It can also make a huge, positive different to the environment.

The image below is from Hafren Forest in mid-Wales that was formally used for lead and tin mining industries. I visited this forested whilst staying at Ravens Retreat shepherds hut, and it was a stunning spot.

hafren forest with stream in wales
Land formally used for tin and lead mining, now a beautiful forest.

Tree planting in the UK can also help to enrich species diversity, protect areas from extreme weather events, increase local biodiversity and increase local seed sources.

New woodlands and forests can also be planned in as part of agroforestry systems to provide jobs, as well as materials and food. There’s an argument that much more farmland and current agricultural should be carefully converted to agroforestry land management. You can read more on sustainable agroforestry here.

It’s also vital in urban areas where every little bit of land is accounted for and planned upon. Planning trees into the landscape in this instance is very important.

There’s a current movement to get more trees planted in mini pockets of land in urban environments. These are known as tiny forests and they could be very useful and beneficial to cities and urban areas that have a distinct lack of trees and green space.

Tree planting schemes UK

It’s not always as simple as just getting a sampling and planting it in the ground. Our society evolves around rules and regulations, which means there are many factors that affect the level of new tree planting, including:

  • Land owner choice
  • Availability of land
  • Costs involved
  • Availability and awareness of governmental grants
  • Tax benefits to owning a woodland
  • Expected future markets for wood products
  • National and local initiatives, such as water management and biodiversity

There are various tree planting schemes the Government have kickstarted and supported to help England reach its 30,000 hectare target.

One tree planting scheme, called Trees for Climate, involves planted 500 hectares across 10 community forests stretching from Yorkshire to Somerset.  

Another tree planting scheme comes via the Green Recovery Challenge Fund which has pledged to plant 800,000 trees and create over 300 hectares of new woodland across 68 separate projects.

The Tiny Eco Home Life website is also signed up to a carbon offset programme through Ecologi. This involves investing in tree planting, such as mangroves in Madagascar, as well as carbon reduction projects to help produce climate positive workforces across the world. The tree planting itself is done by Eden Reforestation.

The issues with tree planting

On the whole, any form of tree planting is better than doing nothing. However, there are a couple of issues with manual tree planting that aren’t widely known.

The first is that tree planting usually involves the use of plastic tree guards to protect the young sapling. What happens with these guards afterwards?

They often litter the environment for decades after. It’s not just this either. Imagine the resource extraction and energy production that will go into making 50 million plastic tree guards every year. And that’s just in the UK.

new tree planting in a field
Source: Geograph.org.uk

Tree planting often results in a mono-culture appearance that requires management for weeds and pests for many years. Natural, species-rich ecosystems don’t have this issue.

The major issue for me is that tree planting is severely constrained. The tree planting schemes discussed above are fantastic and will make a big difference, particularly to local communities, but will they make up the numbers needed?

The sheer amount of people power required and the costs involved of growing or buying in young trees, then planting them all is not realistic, sustainable or achievable. As is shown in the current state of woodland and percentage coverage in the UK, we’re falling well short of the targets, which will need to be trebled or quadrupled if we are to hit carbon neutrality by 2050.

Tree planting absolutely has a place in the solution, and a big place at that, but it can’t be the sole answer.

The lines the way nicely for natural regeneration.  

What is natural regeneration?

Natural regeneration, sometimes known as forest regeneration or natural colonisation. It’s the process of trees and woodland regenerating via natural seed dispersal as opposed to planting by hand.

The process of natural seed dispersal and tree growth may indeed be assisted by humans in the way of fencing an area to protect the young trees from grazing or by soil scarification to make it easier for the seeds to embed and germinate.

The evidence out there suggests that natural regeneration could be the key we’ve been looking for to massively increase the expanse of woodland in the UK.

Natural regeneration sit with scrub land bushes and trees
Natural regeneration site. Source: Rewilding Britain

Close a gate on a field and leave it completely to its own devices, and it will more often than not end up in woodland.

This is the process of ecological succession. It sees an area go through various vegetation stages first, such as grasses, scrub land and shrubs, and ends up with trees. The woodland stage is known as a climax community and it is a steady-state well-balanced ecosystem.

Which type of tree species reach this last phase depends on a number of factors. This unpredictability is often considered a negative by land owners.

Rewilding Britain have identified 5 main factors that are important for natural regeneration:

  1. Seed source
  2. Soil and ground conditions
  3. Grazing intensity
  4. Current vegetation cover
  5. Weather/micro climate conditions

If the land conditions are suitable and there’s sufficient seed source nearby, trees will regenerate themselves in their millions, much more efficiently, and for free.

Benefits of natural regeneration

Letting nature pick up the slack for our lack of large-scale tree planting endeavours so far might be a wise choice.

Natural regeneration could save us a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of money. Plants have evolved to distribute seeds in a number of ways. Whether they are blown off and carried by the wind, eaten and deposited in poo by birds or transfer on animals via their fur or hooves, these methods have been honed over millions of years.

The first seed producing plants and trees evolved around 400 million years ago, conifers evolved about 300 million years ago and broadleaves such as the oak evolve around 100 million years ago. They’ve all been around the block so to speak and have a good idea of what they’re doing!

Leaving nature to it and letting woodlands expand naturally has a number of major benefits:

  • Cost-effective – less management needed (may still need some), free labour by the trees
  • Reduces disease risk – imported tree saplings can bring new pests and diseases with them
  • Creates healthier, more resilient woodlands – natural species combination, genetic mixing, well-adapted trees
  • Eliminates the need for plastic tree guards – less plastic is always beneficial for the environment

Challenges of natural regeneration

Natural regeneration is not an exact science. It’s an unpredictable, complex process where humans, for the most part, are out of the equation. I think it’s this hands-off, no control approach that most of the people with power don’t like.

For this reason, almost all of the funding and financial support from the central pot for woodland regeneration goes to tree planting schemes. Landowners then know exactly what species will grow, when they’re likely to mature and everything is controlled.

In fact, natural regeneration is not supported by any targeted funds.

The pace of landscape change with natural regeneration is also unpredictable. How quickly trees seed and grow all depends on the soil conditions, ground disturbance, previous land use, levels of existing vegetation, natural protection of seedlings and the presence of a nearby seed source.

The seed source is a vital aspect. Most natural regeneration occurs within a couple of hundred metres of existing trees and woodland. If you have a piece of land with no trees for miles around, it’s highly unlikely that a batch of tree seeds will find there way to your land. This is where tree planting comes into prominence and can play a crucial role in providing a seed source.

As mentioned, bare ground or a grassed field will naturally go through a number of stages before reaching a woodland climax community. One of the stages is some form of scrub land, which is often considered undesirable and unsightly by many.

Yes. scrub land might not look too appealing but it’s a vital phase that leads to tree growth. Thorny scrub bushes, such as blackberry and hawthorn, act as protectors for young trees from grazers and other disturbances.  

Is natural regeneration of woodland the answer?

natural woodland regeneration in argyll and bute scotland
Natural woodland regeneration in Scotland. Notice fence to stop grazing. Source: Patrick Mackie at Geograph.org.uk

Natural regeneration of woodland can, and certainly should, play a large part of the solution.

Global studies have shown that ‘actively’ restoring land by tree planting is not any more successful, in terms of speed and completeness, in restoring woodland when compared to ‘passively’ letting the area regenerate itself.

Studies, such as one at Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire, have shown that a former fields used for growing crops can naturally regenerate to full, species-rich woodland in less than 50 years.

What we need is a combination of the two approaches – natural regeneration and tree planting. Let’s remember, these two methods are not opposites. Although they are often contrasted, they’re playing on the same team with the ultimate goal of increasing woodland cover in the UK.

Due to a number of factors, neither tree planting or natural regeneration can provide the full answer all on its own.

Rewilding Britain are advocating for natural regeneration to become the default approach to expanding woodland. However, they also recognise that the landscape has changed so much in certain areas that tree planting may be the only option at establishing new woodlands. Below they have proposed a three-step hierarchy in deciding how to expand woodland.

3 step approach to increasing woodland in the UK

Rewilding Britain have proposed a three-step approach to expanding woodland habitats across the UK.

They’ve called this a Three-Step Natural Regeneration Hierarchy, and it looks like this:

three-step approach to expanding woodland habitats across the UK by rewilding britain and natural regeneration

Step 1. Let nature take the lead – if the conditions are right (nearby seed source, protected from over-grazing), let natural regeneration be the default approach.  

Step 2. Give nature a helping hand – help get the process kickstarted by assisting natural regeneration. This may be through ground preparation or temporarily fencing off an area.

Step 3. Plant trees – if step 1 and step 2 are not achievable, go ahead with planting trees. As a benefit, this can be a great way to engage local people and communities, particularly in urban areas.

There is certainly sufficient land still around in the UK to convert to woodland. Analysis of unpublished Forestry Commission data by Friends of the Earth concluded that there’s enough suitable land to triple the area covered by trees on top of existing woodland. This would take the total area of land covered in trees in England to around a third.

Wrap up on tree planting vs natural regeneration

It all comes down to this: we need more woodland tree cover in the UK.

Significantly increasing the total area of land covered with trees can have a major three-fold impact: bring us a country a lot closer to carbon neutrality, fight the climate crisis and address the species extinction crisis we are going through.

The best way to increase the amount of woodlands is whatever method is more suitable for the area and conditions. We need to use all the tools we have, starting with whatever tool is most suited to the job. Generating more woodland is going to require an integrated approach with more methods utilised.

It seems that natural regeneration and large-scale rewilding is the logical approach if we want to cover big areas. The evidence suggests that allowing woodlands to regenerate naturally could massively increase the scale of woodland creation across the UK at little to no cost in comparison to tree planting.

wild field and trees uk

Humans have an almost innate feeling to get involved and take control. This need to control even expands to dismissing possible solutions such as natural regeneration because it inherently involves giving up some control!

With millions of years of experience, we need to let nature give us a helping hand where it can and do the work it’s literally evolved to do.

It’s also true that because the scales have been tipped so much, humans will need to get involved in certain instances to lend some positive interventions. Working together and balance.

This also doesn’t mean that tree planting has no part. As shown in Rewilding Britain’s three step approach, tree planting is going to play an important and absolutely necessary role where it’s simply not possible to let nature do its thing. However, it can no longer be the preferred and default approach.

We simply have too much ground to make up and new woodlands to generate (1.5 billion trees by 2050) to do this all by hand.

It’s not achievable to do this solely by tree planting and, as we’ve seen, it’s not necessary. Let natural regeneration fill this large hole and do what it does best, then fill the gaps with physical tree planting.


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*Header image from Image by Dan Jones.