Achieving Tree Planting Targets in Wales

Posted on June 2, 2020 by

Amidst the profound changes to ordinary life required to tackle Covid-19 many in our communities have rediscovered the value of woodland. These renewed connections with the local environment and nature should provide fertile support for the creation of new woodland as proposed by Welsh Government as a response to the climate emergency and zero-carbon targets. However, to take advantage of community support for tree planting we need a programme of effective support to on-the-ground action from Welsh Government. Unfortunately, there are multiple problems with existing support and even the modest Welsh tree planting targets are not being met. Now is a good time to examine the causes of this to be ready to promote tree planting in our local communities once it is safe to do so.

The current target for planting of new woodlands in Wales is 2,000 ha per year and it is not being achieved – but where did the target for Wales come from? Why is it apparently not working? What can we as custodians of Community Woodlands do to help? Read the following blog by LlyG member Dr Jenny Wong exploring the reasons we’re not achieving the targets in Wales and suggesting a way forward………

We need action to achieve pragmatic levels of tree planting in Wales to meet the challenges of the climate emergency while appreciating the need to protect biodiversity, restore habitats and respect cultural and historical features in the landscape and we’d love to hear your views on what these should be – possibly:

  • Larger scale investment in incentives for tree planting
  • Revision of procedures for delivering woodland creation grants and implementing EIA for afforestation
  • Review of Woodland Opportunities Map

To support and recognise the contribution of other tree planting and natural regeneration.

  • Regular estimates of area of growing trees from remote sensing to give an indicator of increasing woodland cover to supplement statistics derived from uptake of grant schemes
  • Incorporate new trees identified from urban tree canopy cover data into tree planting statistics
  • Consider incentive scheme for non-area-based tree planting e.g. for urban areas, hedgerows etc.

To recognise that woodland benefits arises from presence of trees not seedlings.

  • Link support for tree planting to management plans and a commitment to long-term management
  • Introduction of support for ongoing management of woodlands to enhance benefits e.g. carbon, timber quality, biodiversity etc.

And finally, to recognise that local communities can be powerful allies in tree planting, woodland management and mobilisation of climate change action.

 

Tree planting in Wales

Back in 2010 the Welsh Government policy was to establish 100,000 ha of new woodland of mainly native trees by 2030. This target was picked out of the Land Use and Climate Change Group report as a means to offset greenhouse gases produced by Wales’ agriculture and forestry[1]. This gave a 5,000 Ha annual target though given the low uptake of tree planting grants at the time and appreciation of multiple barriers to tree planting the Woodland for Wales strategy set the target to 2,000 ha as something with more potential to be achieved. The graph below shows the annual rate of official i.e. grant-aided new woodland creation from 1971 to 2019.

The first point to note is that we have had policy supporting tree planting as a response to climate change for some time already though admittedly it’s not been very effective to date. Secondly, there are precedents for planting rates in Wales exceeding 2000 ha per year – but not since the early 1970’s with rates in recent years among the lowest since the formation of the Forestry Commission (in 1919). The high planting rates required to raise the woodland area in Wales from 102,615 ha (4.9% of land area) in 1924 to 309,000 ha (15% of land area) in 2019 was largely achieved directly by the government (i.e. by the Forestry Commission) and private large-scale commercial plantations supported by grant and fiscal (tax) incentives. These programmes came to an end in the 1980’s. Woodland creation is now primarily a small-scale private sector activity with very little new woodland being created by NRW or other public bodies such as Councils. This means the only way for Government to seek to have its tree planting ambitions met is to provide incentives – usually in the form of grant aid towards the costs of tree planting. Since 1994 we have had a succession of grant schemes for planting new woodland: the Woodland Grant Scheme (1994-2005), Better Woodlands for Wales (2006-2010), Glastir Woodland Management scheme (2011-2015) and the current Glastir Woodland Creation scheme.

In addition to grant support for planting, NRW also regulates new woodland creation by requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for all forestry projects over 2 ha in National Parks, AONB or National Scenic Area or 5 ha everywhere else[2]. There are many complaints from people wishing to plant that the procedures and timeframe for the EIA are both onerous, protracted and with uncertain outcomes. Altogether this acts as a disincentive for larger scale planting in Wales as EIA thresholds in Scotland are 20 ha for schemes outside a sensitive area. So, it is argued, people seriously looking to make an investment in afforestation are more likely to choose sites in Scotland than Wales. This appears to be borne out by significantly higher rates of new woodland creation in Scotland (in 2019 this was 11,210 ha while Wales had 240 ha) though this isn’t the only difference in incentives between the two countries.

For schemes of all sizes, it is the accessibility and uptake of the Glastir Woodland Creation scheme which determines the rate of planting. Glastir Woodland Creation scheme provides grants of £3,000, £3,600 and £4,500 per ha depending on the species mix with the highest rate for ‘Native woodland – Carbon’ with an annual premium payment of £350 per ha for the 12 years of the Glastir contract. Generally, there seem to be few complaints about these rates. Interest in tree planting has been growing and GWC Window 7 (closed in April 2019) had expressions of interest for 2,800 ha but only 510 ha were actually planted in 2019 (arising from Window 6).

Why is so little land being planted by the GWC scheme?

The easy answer is insufficient funding – only £3 million was allocated to GWC in 2019. Even if all of this was used for planting it would only cover ~ 1000 ha of planting – half the target. But even so only ¼ of this area was actually planted so there is more to this than a simple lack of cash.

There appear to be two bottlenecks: perverse procedures[3] and regulations which cant the inevitable trade-offs with existing land use towards protection of biodiversity. Given there are likely to be changes in GWC with Brexit and the shift to the proposed Sustainable Land Management scheme, the hope is that procedures will be improved and the experience of all previous planting grants[4] will be distilled into any new scheme. In particular it would be good to see the re-introduction of support provided by BWW for woodland management plans and a presumption for provision of public access.

The handling of trade-off between the benefits of new woodland with potential adverse impacts are more intractable. The first stage of screening planting proposals (of all GWC applicants regardless of size – this is not an EIA) is the Woodland Opportunities Map. This map indicates areas and locales which contain notable heritage features (defined by CADW), nitrate sensitive catchments (to protect water quality) and biodiversity (potential habitats for key species). Each of these constraints are overlaid to indicate areas where planting woodlands would have minimal impact – the so-called Woodland Opportunities Map[5] as shown below. Note that this is primarily concerned with identifying areas where planting will be uncontested – it is only where there are no other constraints are areas where tree would be of most value is identified (as the darker shades of green).

The areas coloured green on the map apparently identifies a large area available for planting, however, closer inspection of the map reveals it has some very odd features – cut out squares indicating biodiversity grid square based records, blobs showing buffer zones around archaeological features and many features labelled as ‘potential habitat’ which may or may not contain a key species. This fragmentation and ambiguity means that many proposed planting sites are flagged as having some constraint or other which means schemes can be rejected with the applicant then having to appeal which in turn triggers a site visit. This slows down the processing of applications and introduces uncertainty which are a disincentive for applicants and a source of frustration for those who do apply. Dealing with such procedural issues seem like obvious actions if the Government is serious about tree planting.

However, there are underlying problems with EIA and the Opportunities map which are more profound and require an acceptance that landscapes will need to change a re-think about how to negotiate land use change, and a more creative approach to trade-offs between competing objectives for land management. There are several arenas in which these negotiations could take place. For example; within the proposed Sustainable Land Management Scheme, in planning for the National Forest, in climate change policy where the tree planting target originated and even co-produced with communities within the Area statements.

Making every tree count

An important consideration in the attainment of planting target are the numbers which go into the official figures. The area of new woodland created reported by the Government is taken as the area planted under the Glastir Woodland Creation grants. This will not include non-grant aided planting nor trees which spontaneously appear on rough grazing when stocking levels are reduced. There are few statistics on either of these processes though over time they will be reflected in the area of woodland as recorded by the National Forest Inventory which is based on remote sensing. So, any of the free Woodland Trust trees you maybe planting and much of the planting in urban areas won’t get counted in official statistics nor any natural regeneration won’t get counted until they’ve grown large enough to be visible on the satellite imagery used in the National Forest Inventory. This in itself is a useful observation – you really haven’t captured carbon until planted seedlings are trees – and planted areas are woodland. This takes some time and taking care of the trees to ensure they survive, and flourish is as important as planting them in the first place. There used to be grant support for management planning and woodland maintenance e.g. repairs to fences, weeding, thinning etc. but grants are now entirely focussed on woodland creation. The Carbon Code[6] represents best practice in planting for carbon sequestration and it requires long term management plans and a commitment by the landowner to the permanence[7] of the carbon removal. Although we would not expect all new planting to meet the exacting standards of the Carbon Code the principle of long-term commitment to management of newly planted trees and woodland is critical to realise the many future benefits they can provide.

Policy paper for further reading:

Committee on Climate Change (2020) Land Use Policies for a Net Zero UK. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-policies-for-a-net-zero-uk/

 

 

[1] https://www.iwa.wales/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/iwa-forestry-bilingual.pdf (IWA report)

[2] https://naturalresources.wales/permits-and-permissions/tree-felling-and-other-regulations/environmental-impact-assessment-for-forestry-activity/eia-quick-guide/?lang=en

[3] Including accounting rules: there is a fixed budget allocation to CWG – when an EOI for planting a particular site comes in, say 30 ha, the grant for this area is allocated to the applicant. In subsequent screening of the plans – area might be lost because of restrictions on planting next to streams etc., the grant given relates to the final plantable area and the underspend is returned to Government rather than used on another scheme.

[4] E.g. https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/research/evaluation-of-the-better-woodlands-for-wales-grant-scheme/

[5] This can be interrogated in some detail on the Lle website http://lle.gov.wales/apps/woodlandopportunities/?lang=en#

[6] https://woodlandcarboncode.org.uk/images/PDFs/WWC_V2.0_08March2018.pdf

[7] Permanence describes the issue of ensuring removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is permanent, and not reversed at a future point in time. Woodland projects carry a risk of reversibility and as such safeguards must be in place to minimise that risk and to guarantee replacement or alternative woodland. should a reversal occur.  https://woodlandcarboncode.org.uk/images/PDFs/WWC_V2.0_08March2018.pdf

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