The number of threatened ancient woodlands tops the thousand mark
The UK is staring down the barrel of twin existential crises; climate change and biodiversity collapse.
Urgent action is needed to prevent irreversible damage. Woodland expansion on a massive scale will play a huge role in addressing these challenges.
However, the number of ancient woods under threat in the UK from built development has topped the thousand mark for the first time since records began.
The Woodland Trust recently released figures revealing that they have recorded 1,064 ancient woodlands at risk of damage or destruction – the highest number since it’s records began in 1999.
Sadly, this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Threats to the forests
801 of these 1,064 cases are live planning applications while the remaining 263 are included in various council site allocation plans – areas outlined for future development such as housing, business use or leisure facilities*
The biggest single development project threatening ancient woods is HS2 (High Speed 2; a planned high-speed railway). At least 108 ancient woodlands will be lost or damaged by the project in its current form.
Trees capture carbon and woodlands provide habitats where biodiversity can flourish. The science is unequivocal, but the UK’s speed of response needs to accelerate dramatically to prevent irredeemable loss from today’s climate emergency.
“These new figures make for depressing reading,” said Abi Bunker, The Woodland Trust’s Director of conservation and external affairs. What’s even more depressing is these are only the cases we know about. There could be many more woods under threat.”
Ancient woodlands also face threats from poultry farms depositing nitrogen near ancient woods, and there’s an alarming growth in threats of tree disease from imported plants and wood.
*Site allocations are the main nature of threat, followed by housing (175), utilities (148), railways (112), roads (91), agriculture (78) and leisure or sport (49).
Why an increase in the number of threatened ancient woodlands?
The Woodland Trust puts the reason for the increase in numbers of woods under threat down to a number of factors.
- A growing number of road and rail infrastructure projects such as HS2, the Lower Thames Crossing, the A27 Arundel Bypass and the East West Rail link;
- A continued lack of awareness among local authorities and developers of changes to the National Planning Policy Framework for England, which now states all applications that would result in loss or damage to ancient woodland or ancient or veteran trees should be refused unless wholly exceptional;
- An increase in the number of applications for intensive ammonia-releasing farming activities such as pig or poultry farms, which can affect ancient woods over a wide range;
- A greater awareness of the need to protect ancient woodland leading to more members of the public contacting the Trust to alert them to threats.
Woodland Trust standing up for trees
The Woodland Trust is calling on the new Government to ensure protection for irreplaceable ancient woods and trees is a high priority. This week they launched an Emergency Tree Plan for the UK – which is the first of its kind and a challenge to governments.
Last month the charity wrote letters of objection for 46 different planning applications where ancient woodland was at risk of damage or destruction across the UK, and on a more positive note 1,101 ancient woods have been recorded as saved since 1999.
These are woods which received a stay of execution after the Trust objected to a previous threat and a decision was made locally to save them, but this does not mean the same woods could not come under threat again in the future.
“We are in the grip of both a nature and a climate emergency,” Director of conservation, Abi Bunker added. “Recently political parties have made bold promises about tree planting. This is welcome, but the first step in helping trees to combat climate change and helping our threatened nature is to protect the valuable trees and woods we already have.”
“We need real protection for irreplaceable ancient wooded habitats and trees, and legislation, policies and resources that are fit to address the challenges we face from tree diseases. Prevention is far cheaper than a cure, with the total cost of ash dieback to the UK estimated to be £15 billion.
In the 2019 general election every major political party backed the necessary increase in woods and trees in response to the climate and nature crisis.
The Woodland Trust’s Emergency Tree Plan sets out key recommendations for national and local governments across the UK to:
- Look after the trees we have
- Create new policies, capacity and funding for woods and trees
- Take local authority action to identify land for trees and increase canopy cover.
How you can help
The Woodland Trust is not a statutory consultee on cases where ancient woodland is threatened and relies on specially-trained volunteers who scour weekly planning lists for potential cases, as well as on information shared by members of the public.
The charity currently has around 60 active threat detectors across the UK from a range of backgrounds. They include people in their 20s looking for experience to add to a CV, stay-at-home parents and over 50s wanting to give something back.
The Trust is seeking to increase its number of volunteer threat detectors who can keep abreast of planning applications for any that impact ancient woodland. Once they alert the Trust to an application that threatens ancient woodland,it is able to gather evidence and formulate effective responses.
Being a threat detector is a home-based volunteering role that does not require site visits. Training and support is provided but knowledge of planning applications, map reading and the ability to carry out research is advantageous.
“Ancient woodland is one of our most precious natural habitats,” Abi explains, “These complex ecosystems have evolved over centuries and are home to thousands of species, many of which rely on it for their survival. Losing ancient woodlands is a travesty, especially to inappropriate developments that could go elsewhere.”
Members of the public are encouraged to report threats to ancient woodland on the Trust website.
You can read more about The Woodland Trust’s Emergency Tree plan here.