Ancient Woodlands, the Most Biodiverse Area in the UK Covers Only 2.4% of Land Area and Needs Protection

Ancient Woodlands, the Most Biodiverse Area in the UK Covers Only 2.4% of Land Area and Needs Protection

In the UK, agriculture takes up 72% of land (17.6 million hectares), woodland areas use 13% (3.2 million hectares), and peatland uses a further 9.5% of land, most of which resides in Scotland. The most biodiverse land is ancient woodland, that which has existed on record for over 400 years; these woodlands cover only 2.4% of land area and are in desperate need of protection since these woods and the ecosystems they foster are irreplaceable. In addition, Peatland is highly effective at storing carbon, currently storing 584 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent to 5 years of the UKs total carbon emissions. Therefore, we need to examine how land use policies are protecting and restoring these natural areas.

After WWII the UK only had 5% of land as woodland; this led to the largest forest transition yet seen in the UK, resulting in the 13% we have today. However, even now there are 800 woods under threat in the UK from residential developments and national infrastructure projects, like HS2, competing for land. Around 2% of residential developments eat into the green belt and 17% of new agricultural land is built on unused land, putting the UK woods at risk of decline. With an average of only 1,000 hectares planted per year over the last 5 years, the UK risks net deforestation. During the recent elections there was pledge after pledge of how many million trees each party was dedicated to planting, however at the moment those figures are currently falling far too short. In order to be net zero by 2050, the UK needs to increase woodland areas to absorb emissions. As part of the English Tree strategy, the government has introduced the Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme where farmers receive revenue for protecting their woodland areas, as a measurement to slow down agriculture growth in these areas.

Agriculture accounts for 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. The main contributor is livestock, which uses 60% of agricultural land, significantly more land than plant-based alternatives for the same level of productivity. After the financial crisis in 2008, the total land allocated to agriculture dropped considerably but has been slowly rising again. In order to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector, there needs to be a policy shift. Since 1973, the UK has been a part of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) that focuses on boosting food production. As part of the Brexit preparations, the government has introduced the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme to be implemented in 2024 to replace the CAP and shift focus towards the environmental impact of farming. The ELM will pay farmers in a three-tier system to engage in sustainable farming practices and restore land back to its natural ecosystem as a way of offsetting the carbon from agriculture. The idea is farmers have the necessary skills and knowledge to manage the land and will benefit from the extra income. If this goes to plan, the UK could see its farmers managing forests, peatland, and restoring natural landscapes.

Activity Rating: * Needs urgent improvement

Take Action:

Please send the following message to the policymaker(s) below

Dear Mr. George Eustice,

The Committee on Climate Change has reported the UK needs to plant 1.5 billion trees by 2050 to reach a net-zero target in green house gas emissions. This results in 30,000 hectares of tree planting each year. However, the budget commitments given to tree planting in the last fiscal year were only enough for 1,260 hectares of tree planting, which will not be enough to ascertain net-zero by 2050. Every year that we do not plant 30,000 hectares means we will need to plant far more than 30,000 hectares in the future years to make up the difference, with the risk that tree planting demand will become unattainable.

However, it is useless to focus efforts on planting trees if you are not paying equal measure to the risk that residential and infrastructural developments have on deforestation. There needs to be protections in place at the national level to secure current woodland we have now. An older tree will take in more carbon than a sapling and they are our best bet of fighting climate change. Measures can be put in place such as providing an ancient tree with the same rights as that of a listed building, putting stricter regulation on developments in the Green Belt, and ensuring the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive remains in place after we officially leave the EU, and that it is mandatory for all developments.

The Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme and the Environmental Land Management scheme are excellent in helping offset agricultural emissions and protecting woodland areas. However, the impetus lies still with the individual farmers who opt in to the scheme. A national framework must be implanted to ensure large-scale change across the UK, and this must extend beyond farmers to all landowners.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these actions,

Yours Sincerely,
[sign name]


Contact Details for the Secretary of State for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs

Name: George Eustice

Address: 13 Commercial Street, Camborne, TR14 8JZ


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager: Zara Holden

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