What is the UK’s forest regeneration scheme?

People walk by bluebells in Crackley Wood in Kenilworth, Warwickshire  (PA Wire)
People walk by bluebells in Crackley Wood in Kenilworth, Warwickshire (PA Wire)

A Government forest regeneration scheme has been called “pathetic” by environmentalists after being found to be scarcely contributing to nationwide tree cover.

England’s woodland creation offer has created 192 hectares (474 acres) of “natural colonisation” in two years, around the size of Regent’s Park, the Guardian reported on Monday. It is perhaps a drop in the ocean — or a tree in a wood — considering the Government wants to increase Britain’s forest cover by 30,000 hectares annually by 2025.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had loftier aims for the project, which involves financial support packages being given to landowners, land managers and public bodies to help reforest the country.

But what is the scheme and why has its delivery been criticised?

What is the forest regeneration scheme?

The Government unveiled the project in May 2021 with the aim of using trees to absorb carbon.

“You could receive up to £13,000 per hectare to support your woodland creation scheme,” the agency said.

“Landowners, land managers and public bodies can apply to the England Woodland Creation Offer for support to create new woodland, including through natural colonisation, on areas as small as one hectare.”

The scheme was launched on the back of research which showed natural colonisation, which the Guardian says is the Forestry Commission’s term for woods created on land where in recent history there were none. It was seen as a simple option, which can be cheaper and more encouraging of native trees.

The UK has 13 per cent forest cover of its total land area, which places it poorly among its European neighbours.

Defra has responded by pledging to increase the forest cover by 30,000 hectares every year to 2025, with the England Woodland Creation Offer playing a part. In 2021-22, around 14,000 hectares were created.

How has the scheme been received, two years on?

The 192 hectares accounts for less than 4 per cent of the total new woodland recorded in England in 2021-22, according to the Guardian.

Forest campaigner Guy Shrubsole told the newspaper: “Trees literally grow for free when you prevent overgrazing, so for the Government to have supported a mere 192 hectares of natural regeneration over the past two years is a pathetic result.

“Ministers urgently need to let our ancient woods and temperate rainforests spread naturally. What’s holding this back is bureaucratic box-ticking that prefers to count numbers of saplings planted over actually restoring vibrant ecosystems.”

Defra said: “We recognise the vital role that natural colonisation plays in increasing woodland cover in England, helping to mitigate climate change, boost biodiversity and deliver wider environmental and social benefits.

“That is why we have made natural colonisation available under the England Woodland Creation Offer and through our Woodland Creation Partnerships such as The Northern Forest.”