The creation of new forests and woodlands across the country will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent and protect communities at risk of flooding, according to a scientific study for the Forestry Commission
Planting trees in 23,000 hectares a year for the next 40 years — about the size of Queen's Balmoral estate, or a town the size of Kettering, Northamptonshire — would result in just an extra 4 per cent of land for trees, bringing a total of 16 per cent forest in Britain.
In flood plains and upland areas such as Cumbria, where extreme rainfall and flooding is already a reality, there is a need for new forestry to capture rainfall and lessen the flood risk. Trees in city and town centres would help to mitigate expected higher temperatures, while new woods along rivers will provide shade and help to protect aquatic eco-systems.
Professor Sir David Read, chairman of the study, told The Times
that one of the crucial findings of the report was the importance of woods in river catchment areas. "Trees intercept rainfall and retain water, and one of the problems we are seeing now in the Lake District is [that] there is nothing to stop the water running off the hills," he said. "We must look again at the contribution of forestry in the uplands and returning them in the direction they once were before we deforested them."
The professor, one of Britain's leading plant scientists, accepted that new forests would be controversial in some areas and that it was important for communities to have their say in how areas embrace the challenges of climate change. "What we need is an integrated examination of land use across the UK so that a consensus can be reached on how we tackle our changed circumstances," he said.
In order to achieve this sylvan future, however, the professor said that Britain must accept the introduction of non-native species to replace native trees. Iconic species such as the English oak and the beech could be destroyed by higher temperatures in the South of England and the Sitka spruce, the most commercial tree in Britain, is likely to be confined to the North and North West.
He said: "We have to think now what is going to replace them. It is possible that Pyrenean, downy or white oak will do better in future conditions, but we urgently need the trials now to test these species. We have got to find out now which species will be best for the environment. We can't wait until 2050. We can't be squeamish, as we have been in the past, about replacing native species with non-native species, though of course there would need to be proper safeguards and we would have to assess the potential for invasiveness."
He suggested that the Sitka spruce grown in Britain, predominantly in Scotland, were from seeds from British Columbia, but that it would be prudent now to try strains that currently grow in the warmer climate of southern Oregon. His scenario envisages many new woodlands for the South of England that would not only capture carbon emissions but that would also be used as an energy crop to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
These woods would comprise willow and poplar, and more mixed deciduous forests of sycamore, ash and birch. The Scottish landscape would continue to be dominated by conifers, he suggested, while in Wales there would be a mixture of new broadleaf and conifer plantations.
Future rainfall patterns forecast most extreme weather on the west coast of Scotland, in the North West of England and the west coast of Wales, and therefore he believed that these areas should be considered a priority for new forests.
The assessment, thought to be the first national study of this kind in the world, is intended to trigger a new debate between the Government and landowners over future land use.
Professor Read said: "By increasing our tree cover we can lock up carbon directly. By using more wood for fuel and construction materials we can make savings by using less gas, oil and coal, and by substituting sustainably produced timber for less climate-friendly materials.
"While so many emission-reduction measures have negative connotations, tree planting can be a win, win, win solution: people love trees, we benefit from them in so many different ways, and now we know they could play a significant part in reducing the UK's CO2 emissions."
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, said that the Government intended to work with communities and businesses to ensure that sufficient trees were planted to tackle climate change. He pledged to do more to increase forestry. "Forests and trees are an important part of the way we live and interact with our surroundings, and we cannot underestimate the role that trees will play in reducing our carbon emissions," he said.
Many traditional forests have been restored. A century ago there was just over 5 per cent woodland, while today it is 12 per cent. Estimates for the maximum cover since the last Ice Age suggest Britain was once 80 per cent forest.
Cf. also http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8377744.stm