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Protecting ancient woodland and reforestation are key to tackling the climate crisis

For International Day of Forests 2024 we look to the Heart of England Forest, a major tree planting project helping increase UK canopy coverage, which is now just 13%.

green-leafed tree at daytime

In contrast, EU countries have an average 38% tree coverage. This fact alone should serve as an alarm call for widespread action to integrate more trees and woodlands into the UK’s landscapes.

In line with this year’s theme of Forests and Innovation: New Solutions for a Better World, the focus should not just be on the protection of ancient woodlands, but also on investment in pioneering reforestation initiatives. Covering over 7,000 acres in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, The Heart of England Forest is dedicated to largescale tree planting and management to reverse woodland decline, support natures recovery, and mitigate the climate emergency. The charity has so far planted over two million trees. Here are our three recommendations for putting trees at the heart of UK action on the climate and biodiversity crises:

  1. Conserve ancient woodlands

First, we must conserve and manage our remaining fragments of ancient woodland, which are those forested areas that have continuously existed since 1600. Covering just 2.5% of the UK, these irreplaceable habitats help to combat climate change.

When it comes to carbon sequestration, new laser scanning techniques have revealed that old forests weigh about twice as much as previously calculated – meaning they lock away approximately double the already prodigious volumes of carbon estimated.

These kinds of woodlands have been around so long they have developed special communities of plants and animals not found elsewhere. With one in six species in the United Kingdom at risk of extinction, the protection of these woodlands is critical. Their richly complex biodiversity cannot be replicated.

macro shot photography of tree during daytime

  1. Collect seeds for reforestation

There also needs to be investment in innovative reforestation projects. Seed collection is a fantastic example of this kind of ingenuity. When planting new trees, or indeed entire woodlands, it’s best to plant saplings grown from the seeds of trees that have demonstrated climate resilience. Developing seed-lines adapted to the changing local environment is the most sustainable way of futureproofing forests.

Seed collection is something we do at The Heart of England Forest, but we have strict protocols for it. Our team takes no more than half of the seeds available to ensure that there’s enough food for wildlife over the winter. They also meticulously survey and select the parent trees to ensure the traits of the next generation of trees are the most suitable for the changing local environment. They prioritise the seeds of trees that have endured droughts or floods. Bountiful fruiting is another sought-after feature. They also always source seeds from a variety of sites to ensure a range of genetic diversity. 

  1. Plant trees for natural flood management

In 2022 to 2023, the Environment Agency estimated that 5.7 million properties in England – more than one in six – were at risk from flooding. Floods are increasingly prevalent because soaring temperatures mean that rainfall is becoming more intense. Moreover, our landscapes have been modified to make them less capable of soaking up excess water. Urban areas have been paved, natural habitats have been converted to other uses and agricultural soils have become compacted due to intensive management.

The result is that the ground is less able to capture water by holding it in soils and vegetation or allowing it to percolate quickly into the permeable rocks below. Instead, water flows overland, quickly collecting in rivers and overwhelming flood defences.selective focus photography of orange and brown falling maple leaves

In this context, innovative reforestation projects should be strategically targeted to areas prone to flooding, as trees help provide natural defences against rising waters. They take moisture out of the soil. Their roots create passages through which rainwater flows. This root system also holds the soil in place, stopping nutrient-rich topsoil being washed away into rivers and streams.

Our Forest has several important watercourses running through it, including the Rivers Arrow, Alne and Avon. To reduce the risk of flash flooding, our strategy includes the creation of wetland areas within the forest that fill up during flood events and then empty slowly. We also plant trees and install leaky dams alongside and within watercourses to slow down and minimise subsequent localised floods.

In an age of interlinked climate and nature crises, woodlands offer solutions to many of our challenges. Thanks to their natural ability to lock in carbon, they have a fundamental role to play in reversing the climate crisis. As home to vulnerable flora and fauna, they are also essential for natures recovery. When it comes to climate adaptation, planting the right kind of trees in the right places can help alleviate the mounting risk of flooding.

With the UK being one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth, we can’t wait any longer for those with power to make a serious commitment to saving and regenerating our forests. We need urgent government and private sector investment in woodland conservation and innovative mass tree planting initiatives. Trees have always been at the heart of human societies. And they’re now an essential part of creating a better future for everyone.

More features:

What Downing Street can offer local authorities on energy efficiency

Helping social housing landlords avoid retrofit nightmares

Quick question: can we cut 1gigaton of retail emissions by 2030?

Image: Jan Huber (top) / David Vig (middle) / 

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