In a speech at the recent Confor conference, Forestry Commission Chief Executive, Richard Stanford, called for a new approach to how we view trees and forestry in England.

In a major speech at the Confor conference in Westminster on Thursday 8 December, Forestry Commission Chief Executive, Richard Stanford, called for a new approach to how we view trees and forestry in England.

He championed the major benefits of tree planting in addressing the urgent climate, biodiversity and economic challenges of the day and called for an acceleration in tree planting rates across the country. He highlighted how we need to adopt a diverse planting mix of both broadleaves and conifers, which will simultaneously improve biodiversity, tackle the climate emergency and provide timber security.

He also called for people to rethink “dogma” around conifer trees; too many people view them as a poor choice, overlooking the fact that the UK is the second largest importer of timber and timber products in the world.

He highlighted how the UK is facing a timber security crisis akin to the food security crisis and back calls for a national timber strategy to boost domestic production and reduce our reliance on imports. 53 million tonnes of wood and wood products are consumed in the UK each year; however, 81% is imported from abroad.

Mr Stanford highlighted that stepping up domestic timber production and its use in construction will significantly reduce emissions and lock up carbon in buildings, whilst also presenting valuable opportunities for economic growth, rural jobs and levelling up. At the same time, broadleaf and mixed woodlands are needed to tackle the biodiversity crisis. All types of trees are required for a range of different, and overlapping, outcomes.

Forestry Commission Chief Executive, Richard Stanford said:

If we are to achieve Net Zero and improve people’s lives through a connection to the environment, we must grow more trees. If we are to tackle the nature and biodiversity crises, we need to grow more trees.

We must use more home-grown timber in construction to lock up carbon in our buildings for the long term…we cannot continue importing 81% of our timber. We need a timber strategy to establish how we are going to achieve this, and at the same time give reassurance to our important timber and forestry industries.

The UK forestry and primary wood processing sectors support 32,000 jobs and contribute £2 billion to the economy every year. Secondary wood processing businesses support a further 60,000 jobs.

Reflecting on the economic contributions of the forestry and construction sectors, Richard Stanford said:

The economic benefits provided by forestry and primary wood processing are comparable to those of the dairy products sector and are greater than those provided by the UK fishing fleet.

We do not grow enough timber for construction in the UK and we import 81% of our requirements. With the removal of Russian and Belarusian timber, there will be a requirement to seek other supplies.

We should view ‘timber security’ through the same lens as food security and recognise that investing in timber is an investment in growth and levelling up.

The construction industry in England is responsible for huge levels of emissions; timber is the only way to reduce emissions in construction whilst concurrently locking up carbon for the long term in the timber in buildings.

Voicing his support for planting well-designed and managed mixed woodlands, he said:

Well-managed broadleaf woodlands provide habitat for a vast array of flora and fauna. Conifers and mixed woodland also contribute to biodiversity.

We must end the dogma of native broadleaf good, conifer bad. Well-managed conifer forests with plenty of light and structure can support a wide range of wildlife, including woodland birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants and fungi. Mature conifers provide roosting holes for bats, nest sites for kites, goshawk and pine martens and seeds for red squirrels, siskins and crossbills. We need all types of woodlands for a range of outcomes and we need diversity in our trees to provide resilience.

Addressing the challenge of increasing tree planting rates and woodland creation, he said:

Woodland is the most regulated form of land use in England, odd given the huge number of benefits of trees. No other land use is underpinned by a standard that is backed by government and based on internationally agreed criteria and indicators.

If we do not plan and deliver woodland expansion now in a few years’ time there is likely to be a scramble to grow more trees. Rushing to grow trees without adhering to the very high standards of today will lead to mistakes.

There is much talk of ‘emergencies’ and ‘crises’ but I do not, yet, recognise a crisis response or an emergency footing. We can achieve a great deal if we act as though we are facing an emergency. Idealism and purists, while important, need to give way to pragmatism and delivery. Balanced decisions will be required, weighing up all sides of an argument and making an informed decision – informed by science and data. Emergencies and crises need action now, not prevarication and delay. The nation needs to work together to tackle the nature and biodiversity crises and trees provide the most cost-effective, organic and sustainable method of doing so. We need more of all types of trees.

The speech followed the culmination of National Tree Week – the UK’s largest annual celebration of trees – which marks the beginning of the winter planting season and as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity gets underway. The Government has set out ambitious targets of trebling tree planting rates in England, as part of wider efforts to plant 30,000 hectares per year across the UK by the end of this Parliament. The Forestry Commission is supporting Government ambitions through the implementation of the England Trees Action Plan which sets out the long-term vision for our treescapes.

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