MPs call for a one-stop shop for forestry grants "on day one" of the UK's exit from the EU, with single grant scheme for agriculture and forestry

England lacks both suitable incentives to bring its woodland cover up to Government targets and sufficient protection for existing ancient woodlands, according to a candid parliamentary report.

Woodlands: incentives for creation as well as protection for existing sites condemned as insufficient in new report
Woodlands: incentives for creation as well as protection for existing sites condemned as insufficient in new report

Forestry in England: Seeing the wood for the trees, published last week by the parliamentary Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee,  states that the creation of new woodlands is "essential" to gain the "many environmental, social and economic benefits" they provide.

But it reports: "We are not convinced that the Government will do its part to contribute towards the ambition for England to have 12% woodland cover by 2060." It calls on the Government to "clarify whether it remains committed to the 2060 ambition and how it will bring about the step change needed in planting to meet this, including setting woodland creation targets for five-year intervals".

The report argues that well-functioning grant schemes are "essential" to incentivise planting but it describes the current Countryside Stewardship Scheme as "not fit for purpose" and "a barrier to greater woodland creation".

It calls for a one-stop shop for forestry grants "on day one" of the UK’s exit from the EU, with a single grant scheme to support both agriculture and forestry. It also urges the Government to encourage landowners to bring their woodland into management and calls for the Forestry Commission to include figures on managed woodland in its reporting.

Forestry minister Therese Coffey is singled out for criticism in the report: "We were disappointed at the apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of the minister to lobby for the sector’s interests across Government."

It also appeared to reject Coffey’s (and the Forestry Commission’s) assurance that only 57ha of ancient woodland have been lost in the past decade, saying: "We are concerned about the rate at which irreplaceable ancient woodland appears to be disappearing."

Defra, the Forestry Commission and groups such as the Woodland Trust are urged to meet within the next three months "to discuss steps to prevent, and better record, its loss", with a public register of veteran trees and ancient woodland to be updated annually. It adds that proposals in the housing white paper should clarify their protection within the National Planning Policy Framework.

The Woodland Trust has welcomed the report’s recommendations. Chief executive Beccy Speight says: "Government policy is failing forestry catastrophically and urgent action is needed. The report sets out what Government must do now to bring about dramatic change for our forests’ future. It’s really not rocket science."

In production forestry, the report also calls on Defra to work with the Department for Communities & Local Government to introduce a UK-timber first procurement policy for English housing.

Forestry and wood trade body Confor also welcomed the report but wants the Forestry Commission to be given full responsibility right away for meeting planting targets in England, pointing to Scotland’s "much more straightforward" system.

Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall says the current "overly complex" bureaucratic system "is simply not working", as demonstrated by last year’s "disastrous" tree-planting rates, which he points out were the worst on record. "We face a real prospect of deforestation — something we associate with the Amazon, not England."

The group calculates that even the "modest" Government target of planting 11 million trees during the 2015-20 parliamentary term will not be hit until summer 2027. Goodall wants the Forestry Commission to take back full powers in the north of England straight away, where he says there is "substantial opportunity" for new planting.

Chris Davies MP, chair of Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and a member of the EFRA committee, says: "I support Confor’s proposal for a simpler and more effective system which hands full powers back to the Forestry Commission."

Research funding at risk

The report also warns that Brexit might result in significant funding for tree pest and disease research being lost, describing forestry research in England as "already underfunded". It calls on the Government to explain how this gap might be overcome, potentially through greater co-operation with the private sector "where practicable".

Royal Forestry Society (RFS) president Sophie Churchill warns: "Much ongoing research is as a result of European and international collaborations. There is an urgent need for commitments to continuity of such research." The RFS also points out that the report makes no mention of grey squirrel control, which "many woodland owners say is the number one threat to their woodlands".

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