1. Isn’t it better to plant native trees?
It makes sense that all modern forests include a mixture of native and exotic species for the range of benefits we want to see. Exotic species are essential for large-scale wood production, which is a vital material in tackling climate change. While these can also provide the majority of benefits of a woodland habitat, native trees are necessary to host the full range of woodland wildlife. Wood is made by trees locking up carbon from the atmosphere, meaning that using more wood will remove more carbon. In addition, wood requires much less energy (and therefore carbon) to produce than steel, concrete, brick or plastic. The UK already imports 80 per cent of the timber it uses, so we need trees which will supply the wood we need for our everyday lives - for the frames of our homes and furnishings, fences and decking, packaging and much more. As pressure increases on global supplies of wood, failing to grow more at home risks over-exploiting valuable natural forests around the world. The productive forests which supply our wood in the UK have also demonstrated to be, in practice, as rich in forest biodiversity as our native woodlands. Modern management practices are making them even better.
2. Are forests that produce wood as good for carbon as natural forests?
Big carbon figures get headlines and can be extremely confusing. It is important to understand the difference between the size of a carbon store and the speed of carbon sequestration.
A healthy natural forest stores far more carbon on-site than a well-managed productive forest, which is why it’s vital we protect natural woodlands globally. However, compared with a newly-planted (or regenerating) native woodland, forests planted for timber sequester carbon many times faster, making them a supercharged carbon capture technology in the fight against the Climate Emergency.
More importantly, productive forests do far more than store carbon on-site. Using solar power, its trees transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into wood, a versatile material which can replace concrete, steel, brick and plastic in our supply chains. Wood is the ultimate 21st century renewable material, which smart design and technology can transform into zero-carbon, low-cost homes, plastic-free packaging, sustainable clothing, and many other products.
So forests such as this typical example in Scotland not only absorb carbon from the air, they store it in wood products and substitute damaging fossil materials for carbon-negative wood. They have the power to transform our economy from a carbon catastrophe into a gigantic carbon sink.
3. Shouldn’t we be using less wood, not producing more?
The world will need a lot more wood in future, even with more efficient use. OECD report, Global material resources outlook to 2060 shows that, even with increased efficiency and recycling, society will require three times the global resources we use today if future generations are to enjoy better living standards. Their figures show that timber supply will need to increase more than most; higher increases would reduce the need for fossil materials (with their damaging climate change impacts), while lower increases would put climate change targets in serious jeopardy as mineral materials supplied the resource gap.
4. Can growing timber in the UK protect the forests of the world?
As global demand for wood grows, illegal logging of biodiverse natural forests is likely to increase, and tragic stories like the murder of forest ranger Liviu Pop are likely to multiply. It is shocking that the UK is the second biggest importer of timber in the world, and unless we supply more of the resources we need, we will bear heavy responsibility for the carbon, biodiversity and human cost of over-exploitation like this.
5. Are productive forests good for biodiversity?
The UK has a globally small range of native trees, around 35 species, but their unique structure, combined with our oceanic climate, supports a globally-important forest ecosystem of thousands of species of birds, mammals, plants, mosses, fungi and lichen.
Yet our native woodland remnants are small, fragmented, and all shaped and changed over millennia by human intervention. In the Our Planet film, How to restore our forests, Sir David Attenborough calls for more ‘tree farms’ not only to supply timber, but to create new habitat networks and supplement the biodiversity of natural forests.
The science suggests this is already happening in the UK. Comparisons of closed canopy conifer forests with ancient woodland in Ireland, and upland and lowland forests with native woodland in England and Scotland, found productive forests can support biodiversity as rich as native woods.
Critics of conifers often cite the shading effect of the ‘thicket stage’ of a young forest. As our forests mature, are harvested and replanted, and become a mixture of trees of different ages, it is becoming clear this is just one point in the forestry cycle: thinned forest, clearfell sites, and young forests, are all rich in wildlife. The ‘internal edges’ created are of wildlife benefit themselves, mimicking a natural forest structure.
Even the dark lower level of a thicket-stage forest is misleading: most of the forest habitat is high above your head, where you are likely to hear birds singing, and which can be rich in invertebrates, mosses and lichens.
With wood rising in value and active forest management more cost-effective, benefits are increased: thinning, and the deadwood left after harvesting, are so beneficial they can be used as surrogate indicators of high biodiversity.
6. What impacts do new productive forests have?
Clearly there are wrong places to plant trees, as was discovered in the mid-20th century. The lessons learnt resulted in the development of the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) in 1997 based on widespread scientific research and agreed between forestry professionals, conservationists, and public sector regulators.
UKFS, which has been in place for over 20 years, ensures that:
7. Does all new planting meet the UK Forestry Standard?
The planting of new forests, and harvesting and replanting of existing forests, are regulated by the UK’s devolved governments. Landowners who fail to comply with basic standards face prosecution.
In addition, over 80% of UK-grown softwood (from conifers) is certified through the UK Woodland Assurance Standard, which forms the basis for international certification in the UK. This ensures the forests are independently audited annually to ensure that the full range of standards are met.