Trees and their function are essential to life on earth but due to intensive agriculture and land reclamation for modern-day civilisations, the sustained loss of trees has had far-reaching effects on climate, habitats, and ecological diversity. Before human civilisations sprawled across the earth, historians estimate forests took up around 6 billion hectares of land but today only a fraction remains. The bleakest time for trees in the UK was around 1895 when it was estimated that less than 5% of the country was covered. But over the last 100 years, as conservation and environmental understanding grew about the importance of trees, a resurgence of initiates, rewilding and planting, alongside proper forestry techniques and management, means there most certainly is more trees in the UK compared to 100 years ago.
On 31 March 2021, it was estimated 13% of the total land area in the UK was reforested: 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 9% in Northern Ireland.
There are caveats to this though that make the issue more complex than simple quantity. Quality, location, and species are equally, if not more important considerations.
When you think of trees and forests, what do you imagine? Does the image of dense green woods, and bustling ecosystems like what you would see on a David Attenborough documentary spring to mind? Or instead, do you imagine spaced and uniformed rows of trees as forests with soft needles carpeting the ground? Are the forests you’ve wandered through ancient and twisted or young looking and straight? Because they are vastly different in their ecological and environmental impact.
One of the most important considerations is age. Old-growth forests, or virgin forest, are complex ecosystems where roots and community reach further than simply dropping seeds and raising saplings. Trees are extraordinarily complex in their communities. These old and undisturbed woodland, jungle and rainforest habitats are home to animals, insects, and other unique forms of life like fungi. The greatest diversity is in old and undisturbed forests. So, there may be more trees now, but because it is so young, it is home to fewer forms of life that have their unique functions on the planet than a fully developed, mature forest ecosystem. That means it’s imperative to protect old forests.
Trees do more than protect water resources and produce oxygen – they are also essential carbon sinks, removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and storing it so it does not pose a threat, such as we are facing with global warming. The larger and older the tree, the more CO2 it usually holds so the more trees, the more they create oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.
However, it’s not just age that is the sole indicator of forest efficacy in environmental preservation – it turns out location matters too. Some studies suggest that while tropical forests are climate coolers, at more northern latitudes, trees may not be so accommodating and contribute carbon. So, while local ecosystems benefit from trees, the planetary picture may be different. That’s not to say that there should be a cessation of tree-planting initiatives – on the contrary. But education and best planting areas and techniques should also be considered in a larger context, including consideration of tree varieties and species being planted.
In a time when the world is experiencing the devastating effects of global warming and deforestation, the trees left throughout the globe has never been more relevant. While aiming to leave old-growth forests alone, including older replanted forests in the UK is vital. A tree plantation, usually with mono-species planting, is a very different ecosystem than old-growth so cutting, and replanting is not a one-for-one trade-off.
Add to that the damage we as a country inflict on others and it feels even more vital to take a broader view and extend consideration of conservation. Having an awareness of how our consumer habits affect trees in the rest of the world and considering where our timber comes from is vital. Currently, ancient trees in the Congo Basin, which is the second-largest rainforest on the planet is being felled for use in the UK manufacturing sectors. While there are some replanting efforts, the ecosystem as was has been destroyed. Those same saplings planted will likely be harvested again in 100-150 years and once old growth is logged, there will never be the same ecosystem or biodiversity again. The same can be said for Indonesian rainforests being felled to plant viscose and rayon, fabrics that are popular in the UK but have led to the decimation of local rainforests and the local people. Nothing is ever as simple as considering simply how many trees there are in our own country when we are destabilising the balance elsewhere.
A good definition of forestry management is the stewardship of forests and land that maintains local biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality, providing the potential to fulfil ecological, economic, and social functions without damaging other ecosystems. Timber has been used in construction for thousands of years and it has supported the industry to achieve the results we see every day. Until a new material can supersede the properties of timber, then its use will hardly decline in the foreseeable future. What we need to ensure is that the timber is sourced from ethical and sustainable sources. More information can be viewed on our (insight here).