Measuring the treeline – how UK woodlands have changed over time
The area of woodland in the UK has fluctuated over time, driven by both natural processes and human activities. The Woodland Trust1 estimate that around 6,000 years ago, up to 90% of UK land was covered in woodland as native trees (e.g. Scots pine, birch, willow and rowan) colonised the bare land following the retreat of glaciers after the last ice age.
However, by the early 1900s, only 5% of land was covered by woodland, with many forests depleted for timber supplies during the First World War. In order to address the lack of timber, the Forestry Commission was established in 1919 and, since then, afforestation has increased the area of woodland in the UK to around 13% of land area.
The dawn of a new issue – climate change – has once again highlighted our reliance on woodland for human survival. Where trees were once seen largely as a timber resource a century ago, they are now being valued for their many other environmental benefits, including ecosystem services and the ability to both mitigate climate change and increase resilience to extreme weather impacts (e.g. flood risk).
Net Zero in the UK – reducing greenhouse gas emissions
In June 2019, following advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), UK government became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming, known as Net Zero, by 2050. This commitment requires considerable action and innovation from all sectors.
The agriculture and land use sector is a particularly important one for achieving Net Zero. The sector has the ability to both capture and store carbon, as well as leak carbon through land use change and poor land management. Current estimates indicate that this sector produces 53 MtCO2e (megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) annually. To meet the Net Zero target, our use of land must change so that emissions associated with intensive agriculture and land use change are either reduced or offset.
In-depth analysis by the CCC2,3,4 shows that emissions from UK land use can be reduced by 64% to around 21 MtCO2e by 2050. In order to achieve this target, the CCC have outlined a number of actions that need to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.
One of these actions includes increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050, by planting around 30,000 hectares (90-120 million trees) of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year. The CCC estimate that this will generate savings of 14 MtCO2e, attributed to direct carbon capture and storage through photosynthesis as trees mature, and through forests acting as large-scale carbon sinks.
Distribution of woodlands in the UK
The Forestry Commission5 indicate that the total area of woodland cover in the UK is estimated to be 3.19 million hectares, or 13% of the total UK land area. Conifers account for around half (51%) of the UK woodland area, with broadleaves making up the other half (49%).
- Scotland accounts for 46% of all woodland in the UK, and has the highest proportion of woodland relative to land area, at 19%. The majority of forests in Scotland are coniferous (74%), which cover just over a million hectares of land. The evergreen tree species, Sitka spruce and Scots pine, make up the majority of this area.
- England supports the second highest percentage of woodland in the UK (41%), although this only accounts for 10% of land area in England. Conversely to Scotland, the majority of forests in England are broadleaves (74%), with just 26% made up of coniferous woodland. Birch, oak and ash are the most common broadleaf species.
- Wales accounts for 10% of the UK’s woodland, which represents 15% of the land area. This is a fairly even mix of coniferous and broadleaved woodland, at 49% and 51% respectively.
- Northern Ireland has the lowest woodland-to-land ratio in the UK (8%), of which 59% of forests are conifers and 41% are broadleaves.
Are the CCC just talking about large-scale forests?
No! Agroforestry and increasing hedgerows are also important options that will contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions. Agroforestry is a land use management system in which trees are grown around or among crops or pastureland; whilst hedgerows are small pockets of habitat planted alongside fields or along boundaries.
Agroforestry options include silvo-arable (the practice of growing trees within an arable agricultural system) and silvo-pastoral (the practice of growing trees within a livestock agricultural system). These offer a wide range of benefits, including increased biodiversity and emissions reductions, as well as the potential for increased productivity and providing shelter/shade for crops and livestock. The CCC indicate that 10% of farmland could be converted to agroforestry to help meet Net Zeo.
The area of farm woodland in the UK has more than trebled in the last three decades, from around 300,000 hectares in 1981 to one million hectares in 2018. The largest increase has been seen in Scotland, which now accounts for over half of all farm woodlandl in the UK, shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Area of farm woodland in the UK between 1981 and 2018. Source: Forestry Commission (2019)5
Hedgerows also offer a multitude of opportunities on farm. In addition to mitigation benefits, the Wildlife Trust6 recognises a number of other important benefits of hedgerows, including: shelter and nesting opportunities for both woodland and farmland birds; a source of food (e.g. nectar, berries, nuts and leaves) for an assortment of invertebrates, mammals and birds; and helping reduce soil erosion and water run-off on arable land. The CCC has proposed increasing the area of hedgerows by 30-40% by 2050.
Is there funding available to support these schemes?
Yes, subject to eligibility requirements, there are a number of support mechanisms available.
In England, woodland creation and maintenance grants are available through the Woodland Creation Grant, whilst Scotland has grants available through the Forestry Grant Scheme. Information on grants in Wales and Northern Ireland is also available; although note that the scheme in Northern Ireland is not currently open for applications.
Private funding sources may also be available through The Woodland Carbon Code.
It is expected that grant schemes may change under the UK government’s post-Brexit plans, although the level of support and any eligibility requirements remain unclear at this stage.
Find out more
For more information on the above content, or to discuss requirements or options for your organisation, please see our Net Zero and Climate Resilience service offers or contact Charles Ffoulkes, Associate Director – Sustainable Food and Farming at firstname.lastname@example.org
References / reading material
 Woodland Trust (2000) Why the UK’s Ancient Woodland Is Still Under Threat
 CCC (2018) Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change
 CCC (2019) Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming
 CCC (2020) Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK
 Forestry Commission (2019) Forestry Statistics 2019
 The Wildlife Trusts  Hedgerow