Why aren’t we planting more trees in the north of England?

Simon Hart of EGGER Forestry will speak at the Conference Superwood: How forestry and timber can drive a low-carbon economy on December 14th at the University of Northumbria.

In the first blog I highlighted strong demand for timber in the north of England and the well-rehearsed arguments for the benefits of planting more trees; both productive and environmental. And yet we are planting very few trees. Why is that and what needs to change?

The Government appears to want more woodland cover. In its 25-Year Environment Plan it aims to get to 12% cover in England by 2060 (current 10%, north of England 8%). Simple to say, but requiring 7500ha/year. The Government’s Committee for Climate Change want to see 27,000ha/year which, if Scotland is good for its target of 10-15,000ha/yr., means England (and Wales) need to plant 12-17,000ha/yr. This all seems like good news, but it is simply not happening, with England delivering 1-2000ha/year over recent years.

Two ingredients are required for land use to switch from agriculture to woodland- a forest land value premium and the ability to gain approval to plant.

A land owner, behaving rationally, will only switch from agriculture to forestry if it obviously makes sense (and for most farmers/owners that mean economic sense), in other words there needs to be a forestry land value premium. With current economics, forestry cannot compete for land with subsidised agriculture and that is why we have forestry subsidies to try and “level the playing field”.

However, in any one year only a small percentage of land naturally comes to the market, and of that only a small amount is appropriate for woodland. Therefore unless there is a significant forestry land value premium there will not be much afforestation. If Government wants to see an increase in planting to meet its targets, it needs to create an environment where the land price differential is large enough to materially affect land owner behaviour. This is the current case in Scotland, and lo and behold 10,000ha will be planted this year. It was the case in the 1970’s-80’s when planting 20,000ha/year was not unusual. Government must accept that if it wants rapid change of land use to forestry it requires cash.

In England we have reasonably attractive grants, but I don’t think there is a significant forestry land value premium, even on the poorest plantable land. This is confirmed by evidence from the market as very little is being planted.

The second ingredient to plant more trees is the ability to get approval. It is here that I see the real barrier to afforestation, particularly in the north of England. This is exacerbated by the fact that the land most economically suitable for woods is frequently the most heavily designated. Barriers include National Parks, AONB and Upland Breeding Bird Areas to name but a few.

I believe the three legs of the sustainably stool are lop-sided; the economic leg is too short. Climate change warnings mean we have to start to make some hard choices about how we use our land and where we want our trees.

All is not lost. Scotland was in a similar situation only a few years ago, but with a clear Land Use Strategy, setting realistic afforestation targets of 10,000ha/yr., a new Minister, Fergus Ewing, turned things round. All he is doing is delivering on policy.

In England it now appears we have policy in place, but we need the political will to make it happen.