The government has been accused by the forestry industry of a “total policy failure” on tree planting, in the wake of fresh figures which show it is less than halfway to hitting an annual tree planting target it established more than two years ago.
Stuart Goodall, CEO of trade body Confor, which represents more than 1,500 forestry and wood business around the UK, warned late last week there was currently a “zero chance” the government would fulfill its pledge to plant 30,000 hectares a year by the end of 2024 .
His comments came in the wake of official statistics that show that less than 14,000 hectares of trees were planted in the year to 31 March, less than half the 30,000-hectare target for 2024 outlined by the Prime Minister in December 2019.
“This is a total policy failure in both economic and environmental terms,” Goodall said. “Report after report has shown that increased tree planting and wood use is vital to meeting the UK’s net zero targets – yet this is not being translated into trees in the ground.”
Goodall noted that Scotland had been responsible for almost 80 per cent of all the new woodland planted in the UK over the 12-month period, adding that planting rates in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were “woeful”.
The latest data shows that in 2021-22, Scotland planted 10,480 hectares of new woodland, whereas England planted 2,260, Wales 580, and Northern Ireland 540.
Goodall urged Ministers to revamp their policy approach, arguing a step change was needed if tree planting targets were to be met.
“There is currently zero chance of meeting planting targets unless we see decisive and immediate change,” he said. “That means encouraging more productive forests to be planted, making the process to do so more straightforward – and ensuring that we grow more of the wood that our future low-carbon economy needs and avoid spiraling imports in a world where everyone wants more wood. “
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.
However, the criticism came in the same week that the government department launched a new £7.8m fund designed to help local authorities accelerate tree planting initiatives.
The new Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund aims to provide at least 50 local authorities with financial support to bring on board the professional expertise they need to deliver tree planting and woodland creation schemes.
Delivered by the Forestry Commission in partnership with Defra as part of the £750m Nature for Climate Fund, successful applicants to the fund will be awarded up to £150,000 each, according to the update.
“By investing in tree planting and woodland creation, local authorities can play a pivotal role in addressing the twinity crises of climate change and biodivers loss,” said Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission. “The Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund will help local authorities across England to turn aspirations into actions.
“This fund will help to increase the number of trained and experienced staff and expand our nation’s much-loved treescapes so everyone can benefit from the social, environmental and economic benefits they bring,” he added.
The government said the fund would help it to meet its goal of trebling tree planting rates in England by the end of this parliament.
The press notice from Defra claims the scheme will “help to ensure communities across England benefit from being close to nature, which will boost health and wellbeing, create new places for biodiversity to thrive and contribute to wider government efforts to treble tree planting rates in England by the end of this Parliament.”
However, the timber industry remains concerned that such community-scale projects, while welcome, will struggle to deliver the level tree-planting needed to meet national targets, expand carbon sinks and boost biodiversity, and meet growing demand from the construction industry for timber based building materials that boast a much lower carbon footprint that and steel.