Weakening planning rules and rowing back on plans to pay farmers for woodland creation could hit the UK’s tree planting efforts to tackle climate change, campaigners warn.
The Woodland Trust is warning that Government moves to relax planning policy in “investment zones” and rumoured risks to a new scheme to pay farmers for creating habitat could see the UK lose more trees and plant fewer.
The UK currently has 13% woodland cover, with Government climate plans requiring woodland cover to reach 17% by 2050 through planting and establishing trees.
This is needed to help deliver on the legal climate change-tackling target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, which involves cutting pollution as much as possible and taking steps such as tree planting to absorb carbon to offset any that remains.
But annual tree planting levels are lagging well behind what is needed to meet that goal.
The Woodland Trust said getting the billions more trees in the ground needed for the target requires financial incentives for farmers and landowners to incorporate new planting into productive farms.
This will mean payments in the new Environmental Land Management scheme (Elms) supporting woodland expansion.
But there are fears the Government is looking to delay, reduce or even abandon elements of Elms that would support the creation of habitats such as woods on farms and across wider landscapes.
At the same time Government growth plans include investment zones where planning policy could be relaxed, leading to the loss of existing woods.
Planning policy protects ancient woodlands and ancient and veteran trees as irreplaceable habitats, and development should be refused unless there are wholly exceptional reasons. However, the Woodland Trust fears that could be waived in investment zones.
More than 125,000 hectares of ancient woodland and 40,000 recorded ancient and veteran trees sit in the 38 council areas already identified as potential investment zones, the charity said.
The Woodland Trust’s chief executive Dr Darren Moorcroft said the moves were a rapid change in direction from a Government that was elected on a pledge to improve the environment within a generation.
“On the basis of what we’ve learned from Government so far since the mini-budget, the UK could lose more trees and woods, and plant fewer at a time when we need to strengthen protection and ramp up woodland expansion to tackle the nature and climate crises.
“These are unprecedented times for the environment on which we depend for our prosperity and quality of life.
“The very last thing we need is to weaken protections and create uncertainties for farmers and landowners who are helping to ready our countryside for the battle against climate change ahead,” he warned.
He said there was an urgent need to help make landscapes more resilient in the face of climate change bringing unseasonal storms that blew down trees, as well as extreme heat and drought scorching new saplings and killing ancient trees in the fragments of remaining temperate rainforest, plus the spread of disease.
He urged to the Government to urgently make it clear it is still committed to supporting the restoration of ancient woodland and funding new wood creation through Elms, and to clarify the protections for ancient woodland in investment zones.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Claims we intend to go back on our commitment to the environment are simply not right.
“We are committed to halting the decline of nature by 2030 and will not undermine our obligations to the environment in pursuit of growth.
“We want to see more trees, in and outside woodlands, contributing to environmental improvement, net zero, and economic growth. We will continue to work with our partners in and outside government to make this happen.”