The government’s efforts to promote the natural regeneration of trees through a financial support package have yielded disappointing results, with a mere 192 hectares of new woodland established in England over the past two years. This area is smaller than Regent’s Park in London, highlighting the limited progress made in increasing tree cover and capturing carbon through natural regeneration.

The woodland creation offer, launched by the government in May 2021, aimed to incentivise and support natural colonisation as a cost-effective and wildlife-friendly method of boosting tree cover. However, this government-supported natural colonisation accounted for less than 4% of the total new woodland recorded in England during the 2021-22 period.

Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner and author of The Lost Rainforests of Britain, said: “Trees literally grow for free when you prevent overgrazing, so for the government to have supported a mere 192 hectares of natural regeneration over the past two years is a pathetic result.

“Ministers urgently need to let our ancient woods and temperate rainforests spread naturally. What’s holding this back is bureaucratic box-ticking that prefers to count numbers of saplings planted over actually restoring vibrant ecosystems.”

The UK already has one of the lowest forest covers in Europe, with only 13% of its total land area classified as forested. Meeting ambitious government targets for new woodland creation has consistently proven challenging. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had set a goal of increasing Britain’s forest cover by 30,000 hectares annually by 2025. Yet, in 2021-22, less than half of that target was achieved, with only around 14,000 hectares of new woodland created.

“Natural colonisation” refers to the establishment of woods on land where they did not exist in recent history. The Forestry Commission uses this term to describe the process of allowing natural reseeding within existing woods instead of replanting cleared areas. While some natural regeneration occurs in English woods, including rewilding schemes on large estates and farms, the funded woodland creation scheme accounted for a relatively small portion of such efforts.

Charlie Burrell, who pioneered natural regeneration on former pasture and arable fields at Knepp in West Sussex 20 years ago, creating a biodiversity boom, said: “We believe that ‘natural colonisation’ has to be part of our future treescape and it’s really important that we recognise that it gives us an extraordinary journey for a landscape to start to recover and life to pour back into the world.”

However, Burrell said foresters were sceptical about natural colonisation as a method of new forest creation because it did not produce a reliable timber crop in a predictable number of years. “The Forestry Commission says you just don’t know what you’re going to get if you go to natural colonisation. There will be wood and timber trees growing but you can’t say there will be x amount of fellable timber or firewood. But you’re creating a treescape that will be really rich in biodiversity and in sucking down carbon.”

A mapping analysis conducted by Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain revealed that allowing existing woods to naturally regenerate by 150 meters on all sides, excluding nature reserves and productive farmland, could result in the creation of over 400,000 hectares of forest.

To understand the reasons for the limited uptake of government-funded natural colonisation, campaigners point to the overly stringent rules associated with the scheme. The funding requires areas for natural colonisation to be within 75 meters of established woods or large hedgerows, as a source of seeds. However, scientific evidence suggests that woods can quickly establish themselves even further from seed sources. For instance, research has shown that jays can bury acorns hundreds of meters away from the oak trees they collect them from.

Defra argues that the 75-meter threshold ensures “value for money” but acknowledges the possibility of considering greater distances in exceptional cases and keeping up with the latest research.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We recognise the vital role that natural colonisation plays in increasing woodland cover in England, helping to mitigate climate change, boost biodiversity and deliver wider environmental and social benefits. That is why we have made natural colonisation available under the England woodland creation offer and through our woodland creation partnerships such as the Northern Forest.”

Furthermore, a culture within the Forestry Commission persists, promoting the notion that woodland creation is solely about planting trees. Landowners are discouraged from pursuing natural colonisation, according to critics like Shrubsole.

“Defra will say it is a demand-led grant but I suspect that some people administering the scheme are not really won over to supporting natural regeneration over planting,” said Shrubsole. “Who is talking about it? Are ministers banging the drum for this? There is a mindset shift still needed in Defra and the Forestry Commission to really push natural regeneration.

“Surely we ought to be using every tool in the toolbox to establish woodland? Natural regeneration is allowing nature to do this for free, without the capital outlay of going out there with a sapling, a shovel and a tree stake. There should be more support for natural regeneration in the future.”



At Natural World Fund, we are passionate about stopping the decline in our wildlife.

The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.

When you help to restore a patch of degraded land through rewilding to forests, meadows, or wetlands, you have a massive impact on the biodiversity at a local level. You give animals a home and food that they otherwise would not have had, and it has a positive snowball effect for the food chain.

We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.

This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!

Support our work today at https://naturalworldfund.com/ and join in the solution!


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