With ambitious government targets now in place to plant 30,000 hectares of trees each year in the UK until 2025, the Forestry Commission faces its biggest challenge to date.
In our guest blog, the Forestry Commission’s Ian Tubby discusses how the bioenergy industry is stimulating and increasing the economic market for wood and helping support sustainable forestry management in the journey to net zero.
What does the Forestry Commission do?
The Forestry Commission, which is part of Defra, regulates the forestry industry in England. We ensure that trees harvested are done so legally and sustainably. Our number one priority is protecting our woodlands, their habitats and the biodiversity they support.
We also advise other parts of the government such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on bioenergy sustainability criteria, the synergy between energy and land use policy and ultimately how we implement net zero.
Why is it better for England’s forests to be managed than left alone?
Forestry in England is very different to an untouched forest you might find in other parts of the world which have never been managed.
In England, all forests were managed in the past to produce timber and fuel and that management has shaped the habitats and biodiversity that society values today. If we want good woodlands for wildlife, then we need to keep that management going. We have 1.3 million hectares of forests in the UK, most of which are in private ownership. To achieve sustainable management, we need to ensure there is some profit in that management.
Is it bad for the climate to chop down trees and then burn wood for energy?
I think there is confusion between sustainable forest management and deforestation. If you fell and burn trees in an untouched forest which has a high carbon stock and use the land for agriculture or buildings, you will be releasing carbon into the atmosphere and you’ve changed the land use. There is no way for the carbon to be drawn back. In a managed forest, if you harvest a small proportion of that forest each year, the carbon released will be replaced over time by re-growing new trees. So, you have a sustainable carbon cycle.
What is the wood used for in the UK that is taken out of our forests?
Around 11 million tonnes of softwood is harvested in the UK each year. Of that, 6.5 million tonnes go to sawmills; 1.9 million tonnes go to energy markets and 1.2 million tonnes go to panel board sectors. The rest is split between niche markets. We monitor this carefully as we don’t want to see one sector displacing another and we want all sectors to increase over time.
We are the second-largest importer of wood in the world after China, bringing in around 40 million tonnes of wood a year, and yet only 59% of our forests are managed. That shows that there is a lot more the UK could do, particularly with our broadleaf woodlands, many of which have been neglected and suffering from diseases, including ash dieback.
How does the bioenergy industry help support sustainable forest management?
Sustainable forestry comes down to economics, so the bioenergy sector is very important in creating an income for landowners for harvested wood. In particular, the sector helps to provide a market for poorer quality wood and thinnings, that you have to take out of the forest to improve habitats, and encourage the growth of sawlogs This management also gives the owner the opportunity to increase the resilience of the woodland to climate change by altering the range of tree species present.
The renewable heat industry is also really helping by harvesting diseased trees which creates a revenue for landowners to help cover the cost of management and restocking. Ash dieback is having a growing impact on woodlands across the country, removing dead and dangerous trees, particularly along roadsides, is a priority for many woodland owners.
What role has the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme played in stimulating sustainable forest management?
The RHI created a demand for wood fuel and provided an incentive for landowners to take care of their woodlands. Non Domestic RHI boilers will continue to operate for the next 20 years, continuing to stimulate demand into the future which I think has been very positive for forestry. Going forwards, we need to continue to ensure we have joined up land use and energy policies.
How can we meet the government target to plant 30,000 hectares of new trees in the UK every year until 2025 – a forest the size of Suffolk and Norfolk combined?
It is an ambitious target and to achieve this, we will have to make compromises over land use. We don’t want to replace food production or change other habitats, but we need smarter ways of making decisions about where woodlands need to be planted.
Alongside that, we are telling landowners to prepare for a 4-degree mean temperature increase by the end of the century. The hottest days of summer could be 10 degrees hotter than they are now. Faced with that challenge we’re suggesting landowners look at what is growing three-five degrees south. In establishing new woodlands for the panel board and energy markets that could mean planting more exotic species such as eucalyptus and paulownia managed on short rotations. Those owners planting primarily to provide habitat for wildlife should consider planting more southerly provenances of native species such as oak and beech. We need a variety of woodlands in the landscape to perform a variety of functions. Everyone needs to think about where plants are sourced from, we don’t want to import new diseases. The Plant Healthy Certification Scheme ensures planting stock is disease free and is something we back.
Other things we’re looking into are whether woodlands could be planted on flood plains to help slow down flood waters and whether water companies could finance new forests if those woodlands improve water quality.
Look out for a consultation on forestry in England later in the year, it is a great chance for environmental groups, timber processors, woodland owners, farmers and energy companies to help shape policy.
It is a genuinely exciting time to be in forestry in England and I can’t recall a time in my career when we have had more discussions about tree planting. From my perspective that is very positive indeed.