Allowing trees to naturally establish over huge areas could massively expand Britain’s woodlands more effectively, and at a fraction of the cost of tree planting according to research by Rewilding Britain.

With Britain one of Europe’s least wooded countries, Rewilding Britain supports a doubling of the country’s woodland cover over the next decade, from 13% now to at least 26%. This could help absorb 10% of current UK greenhouse emissions annually and help declining wildlife.

However, Rewilding Britain claims the Government’s draft strategy for reforestation in England fails to set any tree targets, and at best would raise English woodland cover from 10% today to just 12% by 2050.

Current government plans focus on manual tree planting as a ‘quick fix’. But a recent Rewilding Britain study to be published later this year shows that allowing and enhancing natural regeneration – supported by native tree planting in suitable sites – would be the most effective long-term approach for landscape-scale reforestation.

“We urgently need an expansion of nature’s recovery across Britain that matches the scale of the threats from accelerating climate heating and species extinction – with clear and bold targets from the Government,” said Rebecca Wrigley, Rewilding Britain’s Chief Executive.

“We can’t replace our lost woodlands by planting alone. Protecting ancient woodland fragments, and allowing and assisting trees to naturally regenerate on a big scale, is the most effective way of reversing the sorry fortunes of our crippled forests and woodlands, and so benefiting people, nature and the climate.”

Letting trees and shrubs naturally regrow over much of their former landscapes – with a helping hand where needed, such as preparing the ground when necessary or sowing tree seeds when naturally available seed sources are too far away – would create woodlands better able than plantations to soak up carbon dioxide, support wildlife, and adapt to a changing climate. Costs and management, imported tree diseases, and plastic tree guards would all be reduced.

To double Britain’s woodland cover would require raising annual investment from £50 million now to at least £500 million. Economic benefits would include jobs in forestry, tourism and ecosystem restoration. The many benefits of trees – carbon drawdown and storage, flood mitigation, urban cooling, improved soil and water quality and wildlife habitat – far outweigh such upfront costs.

Evidence from Friends of the Earth shows there is more than enough suitable land to double England’s tree cover, without affecting precious habitats such as peatlands or valuable farmland.

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