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A man walking along a path in an area of woodland
The UK is one of Europe’s least wooded countries, with 13% forest cover of its total land area. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy
The UK is one of Europe’s least wooded countries, with 13% forest cover of its total land area. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

Forest regeneration scheme has created area smaller than Regent’s Park

Just 192 hectares of ‘natural colonisation’ have been established in England under woodland creation offer

A government scheme to support the natural regeneration of trees has in two years created an area of new woodland smaller than Regent’s Park in London.

Just 192 hectares (474 acres) of “natural colonisation” have been established in England through the woodland creation offer, a financial support package launched by the government in May 2021 after natural regeneration was hailed as one of the cheapest, efficient and most wildlife-friendly ways of increasing tree cover and capturing carbon.

This government-supported natural colonisation accounted for less than 4% of the total new woodland recorded in England in 2021-22.

Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner and author of The Lost Rainforests of Britain, said: “Trees literally grow for free when you prevent overgrazing, so for the government to have supported a mere 192 hectares of natural regeneration over the past two years is a pathetic result.

“Ministers urgently need to let our ancient woods and temperate rainforests spread naturally. What’s holding this back is bureaucratic box-ticking that prefers to count numbers of saplings planted over actually restoring vibrant ecosystems.”

The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with 13% forest cover of its total land area. New woodland creation has consistently fallen well below ambitious government targets. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) pledged to increase Britain’s forest cover by 30,000 hectares annually by 2025, but less than half that target – about 14,000 hectares – was created in 2021-22.

“Natural colonisation” is the Forestry Commission’s term for woods created on land where in recent history there were none. It employs the more widely used term “natural regeneration” to refer to allowing natural reseeding inside woods rather than replanting blocks of cleared forest. There is more of this natural regeneration occurring in English woods, and also some natural colonisation that is not funded by the woodland creation scheme, including rewilding schemes on large estates and farms such as Boothby in Lincolnshire.

Charlie Burrell, who pioneered natural regeneration on former pasture and arable fields at Knepp in West Sussex 20 years ago, creating a biodiversity boom including a bounty of rare nightingales and turtle doves, said: “We believe that ‘natural colonisation’ has to be part of our future treescape and it’s really important that we recognise that it gives us an extraordinary journey for a landscape to start to recover and life to pour back into the world.”

However, Burrell said foresters were sceptical about natural colonisation as a method of new forest creation because it did not produce a reliable timber crop in a predictable number of years. “The Forestry Commission says you just don’t know what you’re going to get if you go to natural colonisation. There will be wood and timber trees growing but you can’t say there will be x amount of fellable timber or firewood. But you’re creating a treescape that will be really rich in biodiversity and in sucking down carbon.”

Mapping for Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain has shown that allowing existing woods to naturally regenerate by 150 metres on all sides, excluding nature reserves and productive farmland, would create more than 400,000 hectares of forest.

In 2019, about 1,400 hectares of new woodland were created in the Cairngorms national park in Scotland through national regeneration – the same area of new woodland as was created in the whole of England that same year.

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According to campaigners, overly onerous rules are one reason for so little uptake of government-funded natural colonisation since 2021. The funding requires areas for natural colonisation to be within 75 metres of established woods or large hedgerows in order to provide a source of seeds, but scientific evidence suggests that woods can quickly become established much further from seed sources.

Research has found that jays will bury acorns hundreds of metres away from the oaks where they are collected.

According to Defra, its 75-metre threshold is appropriate when considering the need to deliver “value for money”. It says it will consider further distances in exceptional cases and continue to follow the latest research.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We recognise the vital role that natural colonisation plays in increasing woodland cover in England, helping to mitigate climate change, boost biodiversity and deliver wider environmental and social benefits. That is why we have made natural colonisation available under the England woodland creation offer and through our woodland creation partnerships such as the Northern Forest.”

According to Shrubsole, a strong culture also persists within the Forestry Commission that woodland creation is all about planting trees, with landowners advised against natural colonisation.

“Defra will say it is a demand-led grant but I suspect that some people administering the scheme are not really won over to supporting natural regeneration over planting,” said Shrubsole. “Who is talking about it? Are ministers banging the drum for this? There is a mindset shift still needed in Defra and the Forestry Commission to really push natural regeneration.

“Surely we ought to be using every tool in the toolbox to establish woodland? Natural regeneration is allowing nature to do this for free, without the capital outlay of going out there with a sapling, a shovel and a tree stake. There should be more support for natural regeneration in the future.”

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