Woodland Statistics: UK tree planting still 'way off target'

15 June 2023

Tree planting rates across the UK are still way off target - despite increasing evidence that a steep increase in planting is needed to meet climate change targets and stimulate rural economies.

The UK planted a total of 12,960 hectares of new woodland in the year to 31 March 2023 - less than half the target of 30,000 hectares of new woodland creation annually by 2025 and down from 13,860 hectares in 2021/22.

“The 30,000-hectares target is a manifesto commitment, but we’re not making the progress required towards meeting it,” said Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of forestry and wood trade body Confor.

“On the plus side, planting in England is up year on year, while on the downside the proportion of timber-producing woodlands is tiny. We need to do much better here, as a failure to plant far more productive woodland is bad for the UK’s economy and for the global environment. It is also a fatal weakness, in that all evidence shows planting targets won’t be met without creating significant areas of productive woodland – people who own land want to make a living and earn an income.”

He added: “Since coming to office, Forestry Minister Trudy Harrison has certainly changed the ‘mood music’ around productive tree planting and woodland creation generally, and she has worked very positively with industry to push up planting. Ms Harrison clearly shares our frustrations at the previous lack of progress, and we are keen to continue to work with her to drive up both the total area of planting and to transform the component that is productive.

“It’s vital that we seize the day by going further and faster - to produce the timber we need in this country and avoid an ever-increasing reliance on imports. The UK currently imports 81% of its wood products at a cost of more than £11 billion, according to latest figures.”

“This increasing ‘timber insecurity’ is bad for the UK’s economy and bad for the environment. We can, and must, do better.”

New planting rates in Wales doubled from 580 hectares in 2021/22 to 1,190 hectares in 2022/23 but in Scotland, new planting dipped from 10,480 hectares to a disappointing 8,190 hectares.

England saw an increase from 2,260 to 3,130 hectares, but Northern Ireland slipped back from 540 hectares to 450.

Mr Goodall said: “Overall, this is a disappointing set of figures. Scottish ministers have recognised that the numbers in Scotland aren’t good enough and have announced plans for a summit to find out why planting is falling, and what to do about it.

“In England, the focus must be on planting more productive forestry, without that targets will simply not be met. The benefits of achieving that are clear, and I look forward to the publication of a National Wood Strategy for England in the summer and we are working with the UK Government on a Timber Sector Deal to recognise the enormous environmental and economic benefits that our industry can deliver.

“At the end of the day, however, we have to hit the targets. The evidence is there in every report from the Climate Change Committee [independent adviser to the UK Government and devolved administrations] - we need woodland creation up to 30,000 hectares each year to have a positive effect on tackling climate change. And we need to use more home-grown timber.

“If we do that, we also stimulate rural economies, and help to create the green growth that all politicians want.

“Without planting far more productive woodland we won’t hit the planting targets and lock up more carbon in wood products, and if we don’t hit the planting and timber targets then we won’t achieve net zero.”

Mr Goodall concluded: “The old adage says that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago - and the second-best time is now. In the current circumstances, the best time to plant is now - not in 20 years’ time. That would be far too late.”

“Immediate action is needed on tree planting to ensure that multiple benefits are delivered, and not lost to the UK’s environment and economy.”