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UK woodlands are a vital carbon sink that is not being protected, report warns

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The UK’s woodlands are being threatened by numerous environmental factors including climate impacts, imported diseases, invasive plants, mammal browsing and air pollutants, according to a new report.

The research from the Woodland Trust found that although the UK’s woodland cover has more than doubled in the last 100 years, much of this is non-native trees.

Existing native woodlands are isolated, in poor ecological condition and suffering from a decline in woodland wildlife, the report said.

These are particularly important as a way to mitigate climate change: woodlands in Britain hold 213 million tonnes of carbon, with long established woodlands responsible for 36 per cent of this (77 million tonnes), even though they only constitute 25 per cent of the UK’s woodlands.

The report calls for more action on protecting the nation’s trees and the “urgent” need to scale up initiatives to create native woods, put more individual trees back in the landscape and restore damaged woods.

Some efforts are being made to help restore the UK’s woodlands: sixty-eight projects received a multimillion-pound boost from the government last year to help plant an estimated 800,000 trees.

The Woodland Trust said efforts should be made to “at least quadruple” the current rate of woodland creation and increase the proportion of UK-grown native species to help tackle the effects of climate change.

Other major UK infrastructure projects, such as the HS2 rail line, will cause massive amounts of damage to the UK’s natural habitats, including the decimation of 108 "irreplaceable" ancient woodlands.

The report also called on agriculturalists to increase canopy cover. It is estimated that currently only 3.3 per cent of the 72 per cent of the UK’s land area that is agricultural is under agroforestry.

The Woodland Trust wants legally binding targets in the Environment Bill to restore nature including precious ancient woodland – those areas where there have been woods since at least 1600.

The Trust’s director of conservation and external affairs Abi Bunker said: “The warning signs in this report are loud and clear. If we don’t tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK’s ability to address the climate and nature crises.

“We take them for granted because of their longevity, they are resilient and they have been resilient over millennia, some of them hundreds of years, but there’s only so much they can cope with.

“They are approaching crisis point and we need – even if just for our own survival as a human race – to take note and do something about it now.”

The report draws on a wide range of data sources, from publicly available forest inventory information to citizen science projects run by the Woodland Trust. It also warned of the need to improve evidence and monitoring of the state of the UK’s woods and trees.

A spokesperson for the Environment Department said: “As part of our ambitious environmental programme, we have committed to increase woodland creation across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, as well as protecting existing woodlands.

“We have already announced the Nature for Climate Fund and will shortly publish our action plan for trees and woodland, which will help us meet this target by ensuring we plant new high-quality, well-managed woodlands and improve the condition and resilience of existing ones.”

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