Parliamentary: Simon Baynes MP (Chair), Barry Gardiner MP, Alex Sobel, Racheal Maskell MP, Lord Lucas, Lord Caithness, Lord Blencathra, Baroness Young of Old Scone.

Woodland Trust: Dr James Cooper, Emily Hunter, Andy Egan, Naomi Tilley, Ben Green, Louise Wilkinson, Abi Bunker, Rosie Beardmore.

The meeting was a launch event for the Woodland Trust’s England Nature Recovery report launch and so there were several non-parliamentarian attendees as well from different organisations including RSPB, Natural England and the Forestry Commission.

Introductory remarks from the Chair

Simon Baynes introduced the event and thanked the room for attending in such good numbers. He said he was delighted to be launching the Trees and Woods report as part of nature recovery in England. He moved onto welcoming speakers from the Woodland Trust, starting with Abi Bunker, director of conservation and external affairs.

Speeches from the Woodland Trust

Abi Bunker reiterated Simon Baynes’ appreciation to attendees, saying that it was lovely to be at the APPG and it was great to have a mixture of parliamentarians, civil servants, civil society, and colleagues from the Woodland Trust.

Abi remarked that the last time she attended a Woods and Trees APPG event was for the launch of the Emergency Tree Plan (ETP) in 2020. Abi said the ETP was a very well received report across the political spectrum and was a document that the Trust produced to try and speak to the very welcome interest in trees and woods as part of the solution to climate change. Abi called the new report a “companion piece” which flows on from the ETP and from the State of Woods and Trees report in 2021. She said that this report speaks into the nature recovery agenda and that since the launch of the ETP there have been several developments, including the passing of the Environment Act (2021) and the legally binding target to halt the decline of species by 2030 and the abundance of wildlife by 2042. Abi also highlighted the recommitment to the “Keepers of Time” policy, a “really important policy ambition for ancient and native woodland and trees”.

Abi said it felt timely to utilise an opportunity to tell a story about the role of woods and trees in nature recovery as quite often they are seen as conflicting with biodiversity due to badly sited or ill-designed woods and trees. Abi argued that, in general, ancient woods and trees are an integral part of our landscape and have been for some time, yet we only have a fragment of some of these woodlands left. Abi said that the report is telling a story of creation but equally it is about protection and restoration. Abi asked parliamentarians to share their thoughts on the report and interests regarding their constituency and how the Trust can work with them over the short and long-term.

The Trust’s Lead Policy advocate and lead author of the report, Louise Wilkinson gave an insight into the findings of the report. She said that the report has taken the evidence found in the State of Woods and Trees report and provides solutions to nature recovery using principles at landscape scale, woods scale and tree scale with a set of recommendations for Westminster government and Local Government who are considered the real players due to the Local Nature Recovery Strategies

Louise highlighted that England is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and only 9% of England’s native woodlands are in good condition and consequently a third of woodland species are in decline. Louise said specialist species are most at risk, including the lesser spotted woodpecker, spotted flycatcher and willow tit. Louise said the report draws on the Lawton Review of bigger, better, more joined up and looked at how this can be applied at a landscape, woods, and trees scale. Some of the principles to achieve this were listed, including protecting what we have, creating new woodlands through extending where we are and joining up across landscape and actively managing and restoring what we already have; Louise said there has been a policy and investment gap for this principle. Louise said that nature recovery is not just about protecting species that are rare, it is also about keeping common species common.

In terms of policy recommendations, Louise suggested the following:

  • The restoration of the woods we have with the acknowledgement that not all woods are equal in terms of nature recovery. There is an “urgent need” for Government to accelerate the Keepers of Time policy commitment and so the headline ask is a new ancient woodland funding package, including a £350 million nature resilient fund which would tackle at a landscape-scale issues that are problematic to woods, as well as a restoration fund for our most special woodland habitats.
  • The need for more native woods for nature recovery with a target of 16% native species tree cover as a minimum to achieve this.
  • £100 million Woods for People Fund to provide access to nature for the most disadvantaged areas.
  • Protect the woodland and trees that we already have, with long-term management.
  • Implementation plan for commitment to halt the decline of species by 2030 and bend the curve as part of the Environment Act.
  • Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) to deliver nature recovery on the ground, and these need to be well-coordinated in terms of funding.
  • Local Governments to declare a nature emergency.
  • Increase access to nature so they have high quality greenspace within 10 minutes of where people live.
  • Increase canopy cover within housing estates where it is below the average of 16%.
  • LNRS involves local communities and has a tree equity assessment as well.

Louise ended her speech and Simon Baynes then opened the floor to any questions from the audience.

Audience discussion

Attendee one said that managing a deciduous woodland for public access is an expensive business and asked if the Woodland Trust is really behind the development of deciduous commercial forestry as part of woodland use and is this something that the Trust is reconciled to, in order to produce the cashflow to afford all the things it would like.

Abi said that the Trust has always been in support of a growth of native woodland and trees as part of a commercial approach to forestry.

Attendee one added that healthy deciduous forest flora in China or America has about 200 species, whereas in the UK we are at about 30 and this keeps getting knocked back by the diseases that are entering the country. Foresters are planting species beyond the native, the Forestry Commission (FC) are recommending species beyond that, and gardeners are planting a range of things. Attendee one said they could understand native first but native only casts the Trust as an outlier.

Abi responded by saying that the Trust’s premise is nature restoration and recovery, commercial operations or as a representative of forestry. She said native trees and native habitats have co-evolved with species and are natural and semi natural which is why it is a primary focus for the Trust. Abi stated that the Trust has been a clear advocate for extending woodland and building a greater treed landscape for commercial landscapes and said this is vital because it needs to be paid for. Abi added that in terms of woodland management, commercial forestry, and sustainable commercial forestry the Trust is there, but it isn’t the purpose of the charity nor is the report about commercial forestry, it is about drawing attention to the decline of nature.

Attendee one raised the vanishing profitability of woodland management as one of the drivers against woodland restoration. They argued that if people plant for the long-term future, only one species with commercial value can be planted in the area in which they live due to the type of soil, which therefore narrows opportunities because of the risk associated. They asked if the Trust wants the income it needs to broaden what it advocates.

Abi agreed that woodland management is one of the drivers, but it is not the only one and not the main one. She said the Trust would never advocate planting one species of anything.

Attendee two said in response that deciduous commercial woodland depends on what the market is going to be like and whether we can create a market in this country, this idea is only in its infancy at present. They disagreed with commentators who suggest importing plants from different countries to account for climate change and said that native wildlife has grown up with their native assemblages of native woodland. The work done by the Trust, alongside the FC demonstrates that native trees in native habitats with their assemblage of woodland mycorrhiza, soil conditions and atmospheric conditions have a sporting chance of being able to adapt to quite a broad degree of change; this does not mean all species will be able to manage, but most will. Attendee two ended by saying that we must challenge the dash for Corsican pine.

Attendee three agreed with attendee two and said in a HS2 debate they had condemned the suggestion of importing eucalyptus trees to plant alongside HS2 because of climate change. Attendee three commended everything in the report, highlighting specifically the section on threats to habitat conditions relating to grey squirrel and deer. They referenced Montreal and the suggestion to reduce invasive, alien species by 50% by 2030. They said no Government has the guts to do this because of the controversy it will cause, and it will fall on organisations like the Trust to poke their heads above the parapet on this topic.

Attendee three also raised an issue they believed was lacking in the report. They said that everyone agrees with the idea of more joined up habitat, but continuous woodland can only happen with hedgerows. They said that mention of hedgerows is lacking in the report despite their  larger contribution to nature recovery than woodlands. They said that though it may not be part of the Trust’s original charter, they strongly suggest that the Trust adopts this and said if the Trust does not take on hedgerows who will.

Simon Baynes suggested this was a slight exaggeration and said he had read hedgerows and hedges in the report. Louise thanked attendee three for their support and said that hedgerows is mentioned in the report but took onboard their point if it did not come across strongly. She said there are two types of habitats being joined up – the join up of, say, a bat roosting in a woodland and needing to feed in a grassland, this will need the join up of the hedgerow to navigate. The other, which is more significant in terms of nature recovery is the proximity of woodlands and all wooded habitats and ensuring the fragments are within a maximum of 1km from one another so that when new habitat is created it is easy for species to get there and colonise, rather than commute long distances.

Attendee four praised the report and said they understood why it has been written for England because forestry is involved which makes it complicated but said it would be helpful if there were versions for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (NI). They said the hard work is done in writing it, it will still be hard work in transforming it, but these versions would be appreciated.

Louise said these versions will be coming out. The England one came first because the Trust did not want to miss the advocacy window for LNRS which is being pushed forward. Louise said the NI one will be launched in September, Wales in November, and Scotland in springtime. Louise reiterated that the Trust is a UK-wide charity but said the reports needed to be written to reflect the specific advocacy needs in each area to be useful.

Attendee five said that Defra and its arms-length bodies are putting staff on the ground to help support local authorities for LNRSs to provide a vision for a landscape that is rich in woodland and wildlife. They said the tree equity assessment was an interesting area and asked how the Trust envisages that to work. They also asked for more information about the join up between agroforestry and ancient woodlands.

On tree equity, Andy Egan said this is a new programme that the Trust is leading on with the American Forest and the Centre for Sustainable Health. He said the Trust is currently developing a tree equity score and piloting this with several local authorities. Andy said this methodology can then be rolled out by all local authorities to assess distribution of trees within their council areas and districts so they can identify specific areas which have a low tree cover and target these areas for future tree and woodland creation. This allows people to be closer to green spaces which is an objective of the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), however, unlike the EIP, the Trust is asking for accessibility to be in 10 minutes of travelling distance, rather than 15 minutes to push the level of ambition.

Abi added that the Trust is piloting these projects in local authorities together with the National Trust and Community Forests Trust. She said lessons are already being learned and some aspects cannot be drawn across from the American experience due to the variation between the UK and America.

On agroforestry, Abi said that the Trust is an advocate along with Soil Association of bringing more trees, both as part of hedgerows and small woodlands, into farming and working with very progressive farmers to achieve this. Abi said this is another area of how we target agroforestry and get it to work alongside natural habitats and semi natural habitats. Abi also highlighted the agroforestry event in September to attendees.

Alex Sobel MP speech

Simon Baynes introduced the Shadow Defra Minister Alex Sobel.

Alex began by quoting Lord Zac Goldsmith, who said that “the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries”. Alex said since then David Attenborough has adopted this line and now nature depletion is at the forefront of everyone’s minds due to the BBC’s Wild Isles. Alex praised the report for filling in the space of how we square the circle around this issue. Alex reaffirmed his support for national and international agreements, saying he is just as signed up as the Government to the 25 Year Environment Plan, EIP and the agreement struck in Montreal. Alex said Labour considers these not as a ceiling to ambition but as a floor and recognised that the report also has this ambition to upscale what already exists.

Alex said another element of the report he is pleased about is the delivery aspect and within this the National Nature Recovery Strategy and LNRS which is where the real work will come in. Alex argued that those working on the ground should be central to those plans, including the Trust, local authorities, and elected mayors. He said that LNRSs will not work unless they are resourced and unless we have a Land Use Framework to deliver them. Alex said he is pleased that LNRS is central to the report which is often missing from other literature he reads. Alex mentioned his trip to Somerset with Guy Shrubsole and said he is also really pleased to see a focus on temperate rainforests. He stated that there is general cross-party agreement that these need to be expanded and the ecosystem services of these outstrip other type of woodlands.

Alex praised the layout of the report specifically how it has broken down asks into different areas and said this is certainly something he will be engaging with the Trust about. Alex spoke about Environmental Land Management Schemes, stating it is still Labour’s and the Government’s main tool in renaturing and encouraging those who own the land to take these steps. Alex spoke about a site visit to Skipton and how the landowners are transforming this estate which is why Alex suggested that reports like these should be in the hands of both politicians and landowners as most of the land is in private hands.

Alex ended his speech by saying that he thinks it is important to reverse biodiversity loss and that we do need to see the reintroduction of native species here and get public confidence. He said he would certainly be engaging with the Trust going forward on this report and on the ground.

Audience discussion continued

Attendee six asked about agroforestry and woodland pasture and asked for assessment and recommendation about what ELMS should be offering land managers to maximise the benefits of that, and assessment of the funding available to do so and how different farmers and land managers see that funding as being distributed.

The Trust’s Lead on Agriculture, Emily Hunter said that the Trust is working with Defra on agroforestry and ELMS and Defra are currently developing an offer, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). Emily also highlighted the recent agroforestry report, published in November 2022. Emily said there needs to be more advice and guidance for farmers as it is estimated that only 3% of farmland uses agroforestry in some form. Emily said that farmers aren’t as familiar with trees so are reluctant to take up the tree offer so the SFI standard being developed needs to have advice so farmers will take it up and do it properly to provide the many benefits for farming and the environment. Emily said that there should be more funding that the current £2.4 billion on offer until the end of this Parliament but this should go to the right places as the schemes are currently very entry level.

Emily highlighted the Farm Woodland Standard being piloted and said, though the feedback is quite positive, she heard that this is going to be simplified so farmers are rewarded for just thinking about what they want to do with the scheme. Emily said that we need farmers to be ambitious and they need to be given advice and guidance and the opportunity to have peer-to-peer learning because there are some farmers who are doing great things with agroforestry. Emily stated that agroforestry is going to be vital in adapting to climate change.

Attendee seven said that we clearly had good woods and clearly had very good nature but there hasn’t been a consistent market for timber nor consistent Government policies for timber and without this the private sector is not going to look after woods in the way that we would like them to be looked after. Attendee seven also raised tenant farmers who do not have woods and trees in their tenancy agreements. They said that it would be good if the Trust became commercial so that people could have confidence in the organisation to help those that are trying to grow a commercial timber industry.

Abi said she was sorry that attendee seven did not have confidence in the Trust but there are a lot of people who do, the Trust’s membership is growing as are those who want to work with the Trust and fund the Trust. Abi recommended attendee seven read the State of Woods and Trees which undertook extensive research to try and discover the drivers of loss for both habitats and the condition and species in the woodlands left. Abi acknowledged that undermanagement is one of the drivers, in part because of the difficulty of managing them and said the Trust has been a strong advocate along with progressive foresters and those interested in bringing them into better condition.

Abi said a lot of the problems, however, are about development and infrastructure. She said with woodlands it is a death by a thousand tiny cuts which causes fragmentation. Abi said this is a massive driver and with HS2 and a new roads package we are concerned that this will only get worse. Abi also highlighted the issues of overgrazing, loss of deadwood, invasive species, and nitrogen deposition. Abi said that nitrogen deposition is another massive driver in declining ecological conditions and is related to high levels of nitrogen in the air particularly through intensive farming units. Nevertheless, Abi said that attendee seven was right and the Trust actively works with and advocates those who work in commercial forestry to drive interest in the sustainable forest sector. Abi stated that we do not want to export the problem of timber overseas.

Simon handed the chairing of the meeting to the Chair of the Woodland Trust and Vice Chair of the APPG, Barbara Young as Simon had to attend a weekly ministerial meeting. Barbara asked if there were any other comments or questions.

Attendee eight praised the report and characterised the big recommendations as one being “oodles more money” and alongside that consistency in funding. On this they asked how consistency makes a difference compared to the usual stop and go funding. Attendee eight said the second recommendation is to “designate loads more stuff” and asked whether positive incentives for SSSI management should go together with expanding designation, so for private landowners who are being asked to host new designations the right management goes with it. Attendee eight said the third recommendation is for better planning at local level. They said they disagreed with the Shadow Minister’s views that the focus for LNRS is about resourcing because it is quite well resourced by Government, but it is being wasted because there isn’t that link up to decision-making at the local level and the link through to national targets. Attendee eight wanted to know how the Trust envisages that link up between LNRS and local planning decisions.

Abi said on consistency and certainty of funding, attendee eight is right and there is currently a funding cliff edge for trees and woods over the next few years with schemes like the Nature for Climate Fund and the Green Recovery Fund ending in 2024/25 despite being great initiatives that have received lots of funding. Abi said that after this everyone will be relying on ELMS to do everything. Abi highlighted that the LNRS tier of ELM has been dropped and Countryside Stewardship has been brought forward with a bit of tweaking, she called this a “lost opportunity”. Abi stated that long-termism, certainty and consistency is key and that you cannot do trees and woods and not be long-term.

Louise answered the question on designation and LNRS. She said there is a lot of tension on 30by30 and whether this is achievable. Louise said the litmus test of a successful 30by30 is what happens on the ground. Louise argued that it is not about a race to draw lines on maps, the attention needs to be focused on having 30% of land in active management for nature conservation and not 30% of land with a line drawn around it. Regarding LNRS, Louise said one of the recommendations in the report is that they are enshrined into local planning policy to ensure they have the policy teeth and to make council leaders pay attention to them when making decisions. On LNRS and funding, Louise said there is a lot of money around the production of LNRS but said we need to learn from the past, for example Biodiversity Action Planning whereby documents were produced but not a lot happened on the ground. For LNRS we need a path to investment for delivery and actions on the ground and this involves long-term investment in delivering those local priorities.

Barbara asked whether SSSI designations should include more woodland. Attendee three spoke about Natural England and its assessment of the Penwith Moors SSSI which is one of the biggest sites it has had to decide on. They said too many SSSIs are not in a favourable condition and how we get these in a favourable condition without an injection of more money is difficult. They suggested imposing regulations on farmers but said they did not know if that is doable. Attendee three said that monitoring of the sites has stepped up. 

Attendee three asked why Defra does not give advice, asking if Defra is adamant that they will not give it, or they do not have the money for it. They asked who Defra is suggesting will do it.

Emily said she understood this to be a ministerial direction and the incentives should be all things that can be done on all farms anywhere to make it as simple and to get as many farmers as possible onboard. Emily said she has been told to continue pushing on this advice issue because it is not necessarily set. For agroforestry, Emily said Defra was thinking that some advice could come from other farmers because farmers respect other farmers more than anyone else. Emily said the Rural Payments Agency would not be a suitable body to provide advice.

Attendee nine added to this answer saying that available evidence both Defra-funded and in-house funded demonstrates the value of high quality and consistent advice at the start of the scheme and making sure it is targeted right to build trust and reassurance. This links to better quality outcomes and better delivery overall.

Attendee six asked what the Trust’s perception is about the progress of ELMS and asked if land managers will simply be paid to do what they are doing anyway. They voiced concerns that the turbocharging of funding for public goods has fallen by the wayside and said that ELMS could have been transformative, but it is not punching through.

Abi agreed and said that civil society were heartened and excited about the proposals outlined under Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Defra. Abi called the move away from the common agricultural policy one of the silver linings of leaving the EU as it meant we could move towards public money for public goods. Abi said that this feels like its lost its shine and potential and it would be wonderful to get it back on track with some of that.

Barbara suggested that this could be an important commitment for a Labour manifesto. Barbara added that depending on what happens at the next election, whoever comes in needs to make sure that at least that level is protected and preferably more.

Abi highlighted the amount of evidence and experience the Trust has gained through working with farmers. She said that breaking down the barriers between farming, food production and forestry is massive due to the barriers between these areas being reinforced and enshrined through policy. Abi said that these barriers need to be removed culturally and in practical ways through assistance, support, and guidance. Abi added that investing in trees is long-term and takes a different mindset. She ended by saying that good quality, long-term advice is severely underrated, and the Trust will continue to push through advocacy for this to become a much more integral part of the scheme. 

Barbara asked if there were any other last questions and ended the session by thanking the speakers and attendees. She stated that the Land Use Framework is integral to this work and mentioned her amendment in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to strengthen ancient woodland protection; she asked politicians in the room to accept this. Barbara ended the session by saying “go forth and promulgate the ideas that are in this report, and we hope that we can get your support to make that happen”.