State of Nature Report

The UK’s State of Nature 2023 report, published on 27th September, documents continuing declines in the nation’s wildlife, with changes in the abundance and distribution of birds, insects, marine life, land mammals, amphibians and reptiles, plants, lichen and fungi. The main drivers of the declines are identified as farming practices, over-fishing, climate change and habitat loss. However, the report also describes how changes in regulation, targeted conservation projects and landscape-scale restoration can halt and reverse biodiversity loss in the UK.

Copied below are the sections of the report that relate directly to the state of nature in our woodlands, including the management actions that can be taken to benefit both wildlife and people. The full State of Nature report (pdf) is available here.

Increasing Nature-Friendly Farming, Forestry and Fisheries

In the UK a fifth of farmland is in agri-environment schemes, but only a part of this could be considered as nature-friendly farming. 44% of woodland is certified as sustainably managed and half of marine fish stocks are sustainably harvested. All three measures have improved over the past 20 years, but there is a long way to go. Sustainable management is a positive step but does not necessarily mean the same as well-managed for nature.

Forestry is economically important, and woodland cover is gradually increasing in the UK from a baseline of heavy deforestation. Uniform planting of non-native tree species and lack of effective management in native woodlands have led to reductions in woodland wildlife and an increased risk to native tree species from new pests and pathogens.

In 2022, woodland cover in the UK was 13% (3.24 million ha), up from 12% in 1998. Woodland cover in England in 2022 was about 10% with an additional 4% covered by trees outside woodland. Trees outside woodland are an important feature, particularly for wildlife, as they offer additional foraging resources and facilitate movements across often intensively managed landscapes. At present, woodland cover in the UK is approximately half native tree species and half non-native, particularly in conifer plantations. Ancient woodland is estimated to cover around 2.5% of the UK’s land area and we also have at least 123,000 ancient and veteran trees.

The UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS) sets common woodland management standards in the UK and is recognised by both the Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). In 2022, there were 1.4 million ha of certified woodland across the UK, representing 44% of the total woodland area, up from 36% in 2001. The area of certified woodland has increased in Britain since 2004, but not in Northern Ireland.

However, despite increases in both woodland cover and UKWAS certification in the UK, woodland wildlife is decreasing. This is largely due to woodland fragmentation, habitat degradation and the lack of woodland management such as coppicing. In 2020, Forest Research published the first systematic Woodland Ecological Condition (WEC) assessment, covering all British woodlands: native and non-native, semi-natural and plantation. Woodland stands were scored against a single benchmark with 15 woodland ecological condition indicators, including amount of deadwood, veteran trees, open space, diversity of tree species, ages and structure. Scores were combined to provide an overall assessment of favourable, intermediate or unfavourable. In Great Britain, 7% of native woodland stands are in favourable condition, 92% are in intermediate and 1% are in unfavourable condition.

Impact of woodland management

While UK woodland cover has more than doubled in the last 100 years, much of this comprises non-native species established during large-scale afforestation in the middle of the 20th century. Plantations were frequently established on heath, moor and peatland habitats with strongly negative consequences for open habitat wildlife, soil carbon and water management. More recently, changes to forestry standards and practice have begun to reverse these impacts. For example, it is possible to adapt commercial forestry to support wildlife through practices such as continuous cover forestry. The Forest Stewardship Council Ecosystem Service Certification adds sustainability targets to certified woodland; wider adoption would improve forestry sustainability.

Changes in woodland structure following the loss of traditional management techniques have been identified as one of the drivers of population decline of specialist woodland birds. Although new woodlands are being established around the UK, it may take centuries of development before they can support specialised species found in ancient sites. Actively managing existing woodlands to have varied age structure, or species-targeted woodland management through agri-environment schemes (AES) can help to increase bird diversity in the short term. Currently, little is known about the impact of broader AES woodland management schemes, and work is underway to assess the impact of the Woodland Improvement (WD2) option under Countryside Stewardship schemes.

Ultimately, the future of many species associated with farmlands and woodlands depends on the widescale adoption of nature (and climate) positive practices by land managers in all parts of the UK and a shift to more nature-positive systems of farming and woodland management overall.

Conservation Response: Woodlands

Woodland restoration can involve a range of measures including planting or fostering natural regeneration of native tree species, reducing excessive grazing and browsing pressure from livestock and deer, eradicating or controlling invasive non-native species such as Rhododendron ponticum, and thinning or coppicing to open the woodland canopy.

Examples of restoration projects include: the National Forest for Wales; the Heart of England Forest, which aims to create a continuous 12,000 ha woodland across Worcestershire and Warwickshire; the Celtic Rainforest along Britain’s Atlantic coastline; the Woodland Trust seeking to treble the area of native woodland in favourable ecological condition by 2030; and the Caledonian Forest Restoration Project, which aims to restore the ancient woodland of the Scottish Highlands.

Woodland restoration has positive impacts on a variety of UK species. For example, diversifying woodland structure and age, increasing the proportion of native tree species, and increasing the area of canopy openings can benefit bird species such as the Willow Warbler, Marsh Tit and Redstart. Coppicing in native woodlands and clearfelling small areas in commercial woodlands can increase butterfly diversity and abundance.

However, restoration schemes must balance the requirements of species aided by increased management with those that benefit from a minimum intervention approach. For example, woodland thinning promotes common and adaptable bat species, but rarer species need old-growth woodland features such as standing dead trees and cavities.

Case study: Cairngorms Connect

Cairngorms Connect is the UK’s largest habitat restoration project, covering 60,000 ha in the Cairngorms National Park. This is a long-term ecological restoration project with a 200-year timeframe, which aims to restore habitats such as native woodland, peatlands and rivers. Neighbouring landowners have united over a shared vision for landscape restoration, including collaborative deer control that enables native woodland to regenerate. As a result, there has been a marked expansion in the area of native woodland, including species palatable to deer such as Birch and Aspen. There are early signs that this is benefiting woodland-associated species, including birds such as Willow Warbler and moths such as Coxcomb Prominent and Lesser Swallow Prominent.

One of the key aspects of Cairngorms Connect is its focus on involving and collaborating with local people. Engaging with local communities is key to achieving conservation goals and ensuring local people benefit from the project. Cairngorms Connect works closely with local communities, including farmers and landowners, to develop conservation plans and initiatives that are compatible with their needs and interests. The project also provides opportunities for local people to participate in its conservation efforts through volunteering and citizen science programmes. These help to build a sense of ownership and pride in the local environment, while increasing public awareness of conservation issues.

Climate Change Mitigation

Action to restore nature is best co-ordinated with action to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change because land-use scenarios suggest that wildlife is likely to benefit from maximising nature-based solutions (for example, native woodland creation and peatland restoration) in order to achieve net-zero in the land sector. However, this will need to be achieved whilst meeting people’s needs for food, energy and access to nature. Access to nature supports human health and well-being but there is inequality, with people in poorer socio-economic settings having less access to wildlife-rich natural spaces.

Land-based mitigation efforts focus on restoring carbon-rich habitats, such as peatlands, and creating habitats, particularly woodland. The impacts of woodland creation for both climate and nature will also vary over decades and centuries as woodland matures, and depend on a range of factors, such as the tree species involved, the soil types, the level of ground disturbance, whether forest expansion is via planting or natural regeneration and what habitats are being replaced to make space for trees.

The RSPB Land Use Scenarios Project focused on understanding the implications of nature-based climate change mitigation (woodland creation, peatland restoration, low carbon farming practices and other climate mitigation measures) for climate, nature and food and timber production. From the nine scenarios modelled to 2050, all but the baseline scenario saw big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use, with the more ambitious application of nature-based solutions leading to larger emissions reductions. It was clear, however, that net zero is a challenging target.