There was 2.84 million hectares of woodland in the UK in 2009. This covered 12% of the total land area in the UK, 9% in England, 17% in Scotland, 14% in Wales and 6% in Northern Ireland (Forestry Commission, 2009).
There are more than 250,000 hectares of woodland in the South West, accounting for 20% of all the woodland in England. Of this, some 73,000 hectares (almost 30%) are ancient woodland, an irreplaceable woodland habitat linking back to the prehistoric wildwood (Forestry Commission, 2005). This accounted for 20% of the total ancient woodland resource in England. However, around 86% of all ancient woodland has no statutory protection (Woodland Trust ).
In composition, around half of the woodland in the South West is broadleaved, 25% is conifer or predominantly so; the rest is mixed woodland. Over half of the region’s woodlands are small in size, less than 2 hectares, although these make up only 3% of the wooded area. Woodland is unevenly distributed throughout the region, with well known concentrations in the Forest of Dean, Devon and Cranborne Chase. There are, however, notable areas with very low tree coverage, including West Cornwall, the Somerset Levels and Salisbury Plain.
Source: National Inventory of Trees and Woodlands, Forestry Commission)
37,000 hectares (17%) of woodland is owned or managed by the Forestry Commission (the ‘public forest estate’), who are the largest single woodland owner. The largest private woodland owner is the National Trust, with almost 4,000 hectares throughout the region. There are estimated to be some 13,000 woodland owners in total in the South West.
The number of individual trees outside woodland is not known, but in addition to urban and street trees there are ancient, veteran or culturally important specimens in historic parks and gardens and in the wider countryside, particularly within hedgerows. Nearly 10,000 ancient and notable trees have been recorded in the region, and there are some outstanding concentrations of ancient trees in places like Savernake Forest, Wiltshire ( Ancient Tree Hunt ).
The draft South West Regional Spatial Strategy includes targets for woodland which are also intended to help the region meet the UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets for priority habitats. These are to maintain the native broadleaved woodland resource at a minimum of 95,000 hectares, with a 2020 aspiration to ‘restore and expand’ a further 30,500 hectares of woodland.
The Regional Woodland and Forestry Framework (2005) (RWFF) established a ten year plan for policy for expansion, maintenance and management of the woodland resource in the South West, as agreed by a wide range of partners and interested bodies. The RWFF Implementation Plan 2009-2012 sets out current actions to achieve its objectives, under five main themes. Under each of these themes, we have identified the key pressures and priorities for the South West:
1. A Sustainable Resource
Providing a resource of trees, woods and forests in places where they can contribute most in terms of environmental, economic and social benefits now and for the future.
- National Opinion of Forestry surveys suggest that people in the South West are among the most appreciative and understanding of the benefits of trees woods and forests.
- Recent and current work to understand better how woodland resource will enable better focused policy and action.
- The rate of new woodland planting grant aided by the Forestry Commission has been around 400 hectares per annum in recent years, compared with a high of 1,500 hectares in the late 1990s.
- Increased prevalence of serious pests and diseases, including deer, grey squirrels, Phytophthora blights (Phytophthora spp.) and red needle blight.
- Uncertainty over timber prices/economic recession.
- To increase the number of owners actively engaged in managing their woods.
- To plant more woodland in the South West, under the Government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan and other initiatives.
- To encourage the ‘right tree in the right place’.
2. Climate Change
Trees, woods and forests need to be resilient to the impacts of climate change, and can help mitigate its effects, whilst also helping ecosystems and society adapt.
- Warmer, wetter winters and summer droughts combined with increased storm events will affect the suitability of some tree species for forestry, eg beech, Douglas Fir.
- Pests and diseases creating more problems.
- Silvicultural practices will need to be adapted as weather patterns change.
- New incentives for tree planting to alleviate flood flows and help manage river water temperatures.
- Increased interest in urban trees for shade and cooling.
- Wood and trees increasingly understood to have a positive and cost effective role in carbon storage and climate adaptation.
3. Natural Environment
Protecting and enhancing environmental resources associated with trees and woodland, such as; water, soil, air, biodiversity and landscapes, and their cultural and amenity value.
Woodlands in the South West play a crucial role in the provision of the region’s ecosystem services, such as biodiversity. This is through their longevity, diversity of structure, species mix and the mosaic of other habitat types they contain, such as open ground (grassland, heath, bare ground), water and woodland margin. Ancient and semi-natural woods are the most valuable for wildlife, as they include natural features and locally native and rare species. Woods and forests also offer biodiversity at the landscape scale, such as the Forest of Dean, or as an intricate mix with other land use types, as illustrated by the Biodiversity SW Nature Map.
Biodiversity and landscape: The South West is particularly rich in its breadth of woodland habitat types having all six Priority Woodland Habitats, as specified in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan:
- Lowland mixed deciduous (the majority of woodland is in this category).
- Upland oakwoods.
- Upland mixed ashwoods.
- Lowland beech and yew woods.
- Wet woodlands.
- Lowland wood-pasture and parkland.
Many woodlands are of International and National importance, recognised through Special Area for Conservation (SAC) or Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status. There are currently 243 woodland SSSIs in the South West, covering over 17,000 hectares. Many UK BAP Priority Species in the South West are reliant upon woodland. These include the dormouse, the greater and lesser horseshoe bats and the pearl bordered fritillary butterfly.
A number of Ancient Woodland Priority Areas have been identified within the South West, including Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Forest of Dean, the Cotswolds, and Cranborne Chase in Dorset. These represent networks of ancient woodlands where landscape connectivity and permeability offer exceptional opportunities to link and extend ancient woodlands by new planting, and improve the condition of existing woodland through management. In addition, approximately half of the South West’s ancient woodland resource has been planted with non-native conifers (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites) and requires gradual and sensitive restoration back to native broadleaves to enhance dormant biodiversity.
Ancient and veteran trees are important for biodiversity, heritage and culture, and are found within woods and forests, parkland and historic landscapes through much of the South West, eg Savernake; Ashton Court, Bristol and Powderham, Devon. Some 10,000 ancient and notable trees have been recorded in the region. Our knowledge of their distribution is, however, limited. These trees need ‘successors’ if there are to be such trees in the future.
Ecosystem services: Trees, woods and forests provide many other ecosystems services and benefits including biodiversity, landscape and heritage. These include contributing to some of the fundamentals for life, such as clean water, soil and air. For example, trees and woodland improve air quality. This occurs by absorbing pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and ozone, intercept harmful particulates from smoke, pollen and dust, and of course release oxygen through photosynthesis. This helps to alleviate the problems caused by chronic respiratory disease. Woodland can also play a key role in water and soil management, enhancing water purity by reducing the amount of nitrates and other pollutants that reach watercourses. They also alleviate flooding by holding back flood waters, and stabilising soil by reducing surface run-off.
- Woodland cover in the South West is thought to have increased by 100% over the last 100 years. Currently rates of new planting are relatively low, around 400 ha per year.
- Breeding populations of many woodland birds have declined sharply in the last 25 years.
- Area under management through Forestry Commission and other grant aid is increasing.
- Neglect of woodland is a long term threat to its contribution to the natural environment.
- Ancient and other woodland continues to be at risk from urban and industrial development.
- Government and European funding for woodland management, restoration and creation can help deliver biodiversity and many other public benefits.
- The Ancient Tree Forum is mapping and offering advice to farmers and landowners regarding the best ways to manage ancient and veteran trees. Hedgerow trees can now be managed under agri-environment schemes.
- An audit of the South West’s wood-pasture and parkland resource will take place in 2010.
- Restoration of planted ancient woodland sites.
4.Quality of Life
Increasing the contribution that trees, woods and forests make to the quality of life of those who live, work in or visit the South West.
Trees, woods and forests contribute on many levels to people’s wellbeing and quality of life – providing access to recreation, educational opportunities, improved physical and mental health, community engagement, and through the provision of ‘green infrastructure’.
- Expansion of the Forest School concept in recent years, as woodland-based learning is increasingly seen as beneficial and effective for both younger children and older, often disaffected young people.
- Increased use of woodland in Walking for Health, Green Gyms and similar schemes.
- Increasing interest in community woodlands, including management and subsequent use of produce, eg in local energy schemes.
- Greater understanding of the role of trees and woods in green infrastructure planning and delivery, such as in Plymouth, Exeter, Swindon, West of England.
- Limited access to woods near where people live. Only 13% of people in the South West can access a wood of at least 2 hectares within 500 metres of their homes, and only 67% are able to visit a wood that is 20 hectares or more in size, within 4 km of their houses (Woodland Trust, Space for People, 2010).
- Lack of public funding for educational use of woodland, and for management of trees and woods in the urban realm.
- Proposed i-tree project, to develop a UK tool for valuing the non-timber contribution of trees to society.
- Development of NHS Forest projects.
- Support Green Infrastructure strategies and delivery plans to use woodland to deliver quality of life benefits.
- Support the use of street trees as a means of helping urban climate change adaptation.
5. Business and Markets
Improving the competitiveness of woodland businesses, promoting markets for woodland products and ecosystem services with identifiable public benefits, including the reduction of carbon emissions.
Trees, woods and forests make a significant contribution to the economy of South West England, in rural areas in particular. Jobs and businesses have developed within the traditional timber markets (felling, transporting, processing and finishing) and within recreational markets. Mountain biking, shooting, tourism and leisure all draw upon trees and woods as providers of ideal locations for business opportunities. Wood is a sustainable, low-embodied energy product that can help us move toward a low carbon economy and create more jobs and business opportunities.
- Increasing recognition of non-timber economic value of woods and forests. It is estimated that there is a £275 million recreation and tourism expenditure in 2008/2009 associated with visits to South West woods and forests ( Eskogen and Lockhart Garratt, 2009).
- Rapid expansion of woodfuel installations and market.
- Increasing interest and demand in sustainable construction and use of wood.
- Increasing proportion of woods certified as sustainably managed, such as by the Forest Stewardship Council. All Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust woods are certified.
- Ageing workforce in forestry industries.
- Lack of investment in South West processing facilities, modern machinery and skill development.
- Increasing volumes of timber in South West Woods growing beyond marketable size.
- A lack of new plating in recent years leading to reduced productive capacity in the long term.
- Fluctuations in market conditions (such as overseas competition and the economic recession).
- The timber sector is thinly spread and diverse, therefore, a critical mass for training and investment may be difficult to achieve.
- Investment under the Rural England Development Programme (RDPE) programme until 2013 for improvement of the economic potential of woods and for investment in training, skills, equipment and supply chains.
- Low Carbon Transition Plan – push for more new and productive woodland, including emerging scheme for offsetting emissions.
- Renewable Heat Incentive will drive woodfuel installations and demand for woodfuel.
1SW Project to develop off-road cycling provision.