New report provides evidence of compounding threats to UK’s woods and trees 

© Tony Atkin

A new report published by the Woodland Trust brings together evidence which highlights a barrage of compounding threats which could have catastrophic consequences for the UK’s woods, trees and the flora and fauna within them.

‘The State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’, examines the data and evidence behind the health of the nation’s woods and trees.

It is the first of its kind to focus on native woods and trees, which are such an important part of our natural and semi-natural habitats in this country. It shows that five major threats are compounding to result in negative impacts that could spell disaster for wildlife including plants, birds, butterflies and insects.

Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and External Affairs, Woodland Trust said: “The warning signs in this report are loud and clear. If we don’t tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK’s ability to address the climate and nature crises.

‘Our wildlife havens are suffering, and we are storing up problems for future generations.

‘The first step is setting legally binding targets for the recovery of nature, including our precious and irreplaceable ancient woodlands and trees. The Government’s new Environment Bill must provide the foundation for ambitious, effective and well-funded woodland policies and grants so that landowners and communities can protect, restore and create wildlife-rich, healthy wooded and treed landscapes in towns, cities and the wider countryside.

‘There is no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline.”

The five major threats referred to above are: poor woodland condition, climate change affecting woodland lifecycles, direct loss and resulting fragmentation, pests, diseases and pollution and a slow rate of woodland expansion.

On the condition of our woodlands, the report states the following.

• Only 7% of native woodland is in good condition. 

• Lack of dead wood, veteran trees and open space are causing declining habitat variety.  

• 50% of ancient woodland is damaged by commercial forestry plantations or rhododendron invasion.

• Dead wood beetles such as bee, noble and rose chafer beetles are in steep decline – a key food source for bats.

• Woodland specialist birds have declined by over 80% since 1970, including willow tit (declined 94% since 1970 – Britain’s fastest declining resident bird), lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser redpoll, spotted flycatcher, and capercaillie.

• Flowering plants like spreading bellflower, and lily of the valley are in decline.  

Here are the key points when discussing the effect of climate change on woodland lifecycles.

• Changing phenology (the timing of nature’s seasonal events) caused by climate change is impacting food supply and synchrony leading to reduced breeding success and species decline.

• Trees are leafing earlier in warmer years; birds such as blue tit are struggling to adjust breeding
times accordingly to benefit from leaf caterpillars.

• Migratory birds like the pied flycatcher cannot adjust behaviour to take account of early leafing in
the UK’s spring, resulting in reduced breeding success and survival rates (down 43% since 1970 baseline).

At least 1,225 ancient woodlands are currently under threat from destruction by new built development and 85% of individual field trees have been lost over last 150 years.

Only 2.5% of UK land area is ancient woodland, and many ancient woods are now isolated. This means the habitat becomes fragmented and since there is little way for animals to move around, species decline.

Many species rely on well-connected woods for survival and successful breeding. The marsh tit, one of the UK’s fastest declining birds, has seen a 70% decrease in numbers since 1970.

But as we have seen with the fast-spreading ash dieback (ADB), disease and pests also have their part to play in the demise of our native woodlands.

19 new damaging tree pests and diseases have established in the UK since 1990 and only four in the previous 40 years. 

This is thought to be in some way attributable to a ten-fold increase in imported live plant value since 1990. Imported plants bring with them pests and diseases that our trees cannot live with.

A subsequent effect of this is the loss of wildlife that depend on those tree species. 120 million ash trees alone, lost to ADB, means at least 106 ash-dependent species could see dramatic declines.

Nearly all UK woods exceed thresholds for nitrogen pollution, which is wiping out lichens and other species leading to disruption and decline of ecosystems and causing micro-extinctions.

Clean air lichens (eg: beard and horsehair lichens) are disappearing from tree trunks and branches. Nitrogen-tolerant grasses and plants are wiping out woodland flowers such as violets, bugle, heather and bilberry.
The report highlights that despite promises of woodland creation, only 290,000ha of new woodland has been created over last 20 years.

Over the next 20 years, at least 600,000ha needs to be created and that needs to include native trees, which have made up only 45% of new woodland created over the last five years. Even our iconic oak is under threat from climate change, disease, pests and pollution.

The report concludes that to reverse these threats and avoid catastrophic consequences for wildlife and plants, key recommendations need to be implemented.

• Native woodland must be a major part of woodland expansion, to help nature recover. We need more
native woodland connecting and expanding existing woods and replacing lost trees outside of woods.
Woodland cover has nearly tripled since the beginning of the last century, but most of this is low diversity forestry plantations and over half the woodland species that there is data for, are in decline.

• Enhance existing woods and trees. Existing native woods and trees must be protected and enhanced to
become a source of widespread nature recovery and improve people’s lives.

• Improve evidence and monitoring. Data provides the tools for viewing past trends and tracking
progress towards targets and in developing the tools for the future. Yet in some cases data to allow
monitoring and an assessment of the state of UK woods and trees is incomplete, lacking or not
readily available.

• Invest in the future. Significant resources will be required to rise to the size and scale of the challenges and opportunities for more and better woods and trees.

A healthy society needs healthy woods and green spaces, not only to help tackle climate change, but also greatly benefits people’s health and wellbeing.

The full report can be found here : https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/state-of-uk-woods-and-trees.

Author: Laura White

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