Regenerative forestry offers chance to restore nature and deliver net zero

In the face of climate change and biodiversity loss forest owners, those working in forestry and associated industries, and farmers have considerable power and influence to manage our forests and woodland for the climate, nature and people. This is the conclusion of a report which proposes that the UK must adopt regenerative forestry practices, such as more effective integration of farming and forestry, increasing the number of tree species in commercial forests, and protecting forest soils, to maximise the significant benefits they hold for locking in carbon, regenerating habitats for wildlife, and supporting livelihoods and communities.

The Soil Association has set out its vision for a sustainable future for UK forestry based on its extensive experience in the sector, nature conservation and its work on agroecological farming. Its Regenerative Forestry report aims to spark action around forest and tree planting and a fundamental change to the ways we manage our forests and woodlands championing the critical role they play in climate change mitigation while boosting the UK production of climate-friendly materials such as timber and fibre.

Timber is set to play a critical role in decarbonising the economies of the world and it is estimated that demand for timber will rise almost three-fold over the next 30 years. In 2019 the UK produced 11 million m3 of timber but imports accounted for 81 per cent of our consumption – creating a massive footprint overseas, often in high-risk countries with poor environmental protections. To address this gap it is important that we encourage the wise use of timber, such as in construction projects, the promotion of responsible forest management globally, and by significantly increasing domestic production. For example, estimates by Grown in Britain suggest that there could be an additional hardwood harvest of six million m3 per year for the next 40 years from unmanaged woodlands.

Regenerative forestry in practice
Regenerative forestry is an integral part of the wider landscape restoration that is so necessary: increasing the area of forest and woodland; restoring lost habitats and species diversity and genetics; and improving soil health – at the same time as creating productive forests providing climate-friendly high-quality timber. This requires the planting of more diverse forests containing a mixture of trees, with management practices which are more in tune with nature to ensure that we have a variety of habitats and ensuring that more trees are integrated into farmland. New forests must be established with careful thought for their location and the variety of tree species they contain, and these must physically link with other natural habitats to allow wildlife to be able to move freely and flourish.

It calls for an approach well beyond the regulatory baseline to minimise the practice of single species forests and widespread use of ‘clearfell and restock’ where large tracts of woodland are grown and felled together leaving soil exposed and vulnerable – instead proposing ‘continuous cover forestry’ with a mixture of species; conifers and broadleaved trees of different ages and sizes which are managed to maintain healthy forest conditions at all times.

Reducing soil disturbance is also fundamental to improving diversity and to storing carbon which means adopting less intensive systems and maintaining as much forest canopy as possible. For example the introduction of broadleaved trees to conifer forests adds leaves to the forest litter which helps breakdown pine needles allows mycorrhizal fungi to flourish which helps trees absorb water and nutrients, defend against disease, protect roots and store more carbon.

Soil Association Senior Forestry Policy Advisor Clive Thomas said, “We welcome the government’s, in all nations of the UK, commitment to a large-scale programme of woodland creation but this must be matched with widespread public support. To achieve this, it is critical that we have a clear vision of how we can maximise the benefits that a substantial increase in forests and woodland can deliver and the right forestry management approach to achieve this.

“Today UK forests generally have low diversity with single, or a limited number of, species while in native woodlands biodiversity and species variety continues to decline. This must be reversed to increase the genetic diversity within each species and to increase the variety of tree species overall as well as achieving a mix of age trees in our forests and woodlands. It is critical to improve the health and diversity of our existing and future forests and woodland and their soils for them to achieve their full potential in tackling the combined climate, nature and health crises.”

“Forests are a key tool to help tackle the climate crisis because carbon is stored in living trees and forest soils which hold 75% of forest carbon and provide climate friendly materials including timber and fibre.”

Tree planting targets
Currently 13% of the UK is covered by forests – the second largest land use after farming (72%) – although significantly less than 40% forestry coverage across Europe. Despite pledges by successive governments to boost woodland cover across the four nations of the UK – levels of tree and forest planting have consistently fallen far short of targets. Now all UK government’s are prioritising a major programme of year-on-year tree planting to urgently address the climate crises and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Committee has said that we must increase the coverage of forests to 19% of the UK by 2050 to achieve the desired outcomes.

Farmer-led tree revolution
The Soil Association has been vocal about the benefits of adopting agroforestry practices. This is where trees are integrated into farmland used for crops and grazing animals providing shade from extreme weather conditions, protecting soils and minimising erosion and flooding while boosting biodiversity and adding new income opportunities from tree crops.

It is now calling for a farmer-led tree revolution with 5% of agricultural land under agroforestry by 2030 and 10% by 2040 with half of all farms implementing the practice in some form. Additionally, the Soil Association is calling for a doubling of the current one million hectares of farm woodland (which is approximately one third of all current UK forest cover) by 2050 which would be almost two-thirds of the Climate Change Committee’s target for increased forest and woodland – a significant part of Committee’s strategy to achieve net zero.

Calls for action
The Regenerative Forestry report concludes with a series of asks of government, the forestry sector and society to support an effective transition to regenerative forestry.

Thomas said, “Government needs to move beyond the tree planting rhetoric to support a more integrated approach to land use in the UK. This means working with the forestry industry to create more productive and sustainable forests, putting farmers into the driving seat to achieve a UK tree revolution planting a very significant number of additional trees on their land, and the widespread adoption of agroforestry – so creating tree abundant landscapes.

“Policymakers must create the necessary conditions to facilitate the transition of all UK forests through regenerative forest management practices and seize the opportunity to set a regenerative vision for the government’s own forests in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“And forest owners, managers and industries have a fundamental role in achieving the low carbon opportunities from forestry and timber by championing regenerative practices embracing the principles including increased species diversity and age structures together with retaining canopy cover and avoiding routine clearfelling practices.

“The public and society has an important role to play in demanding responsible production and sourcing as well as measures to reduce the environmental footprint of the UK’s forests.”

Key actions for government: 

  • Develop a joined-up framework for land use which supports and manages farming and forestry in an integrated way
  • Use public funds and regulation to reward the benefits to climate, nature and people from integrated land use and the adoption of regenerative forest management practices
  • Align research and technical development to support forest owners to transition to regenerative forestry management practices
  • Create a vision for all government owned forests (not simply exemplar sites) that embraces regenerative forestry throughout this public resource

Key actions for forest owners, managers and forest product industries: 

  • Adopt regenerative forest management practices across the entire forest to deliver optimal climate, nature and social benefits
  • Implement a step change in the species diversity and in-stand age structure of timber producing forests, with a presumption for the maintenance of forest conditions by reducing reliance on clear felling and the mainstream adoption of lower impact silviculture systems, such as continuous cover
  • Work with, and develop new ways to support, farmers in the integrated management of woodlands and trees within farming systems and the wider landscape

Key actions for civil society organisations:

  • Promote the wise use of timber, for the best possible purposes. Promote the sourcing of timber from forests assured as being responsibly managed and ensure forest certification standards incorporate regenerative forestry requirements
  • Support UK timber production, as part of the solution to deliver a low carbon future
  • Work collaboratively with policymakers and the forestry sector, to help drive regenerative forestry within the UK and overseas

Read the full Regenerative Forestry report


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