Ancient woodlands at risk under new government plans

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Protection of ancient woods and trees is under threat, and so too is the ability of the UK to hit its net zero targets and act against the impacts of climate change, warn campaigners.

Building resilience in our landscape to the impacts of climate change is fundamental.

The government's current proposals for investment zones could affect more than 125,000 hectares of ancient woodland and 40,000 recorded ancient and veteran trees in the council areas.

The proposals in the government’s new growth plan will weaken planning policy and threaten existing wildlife laws - the Woodland Trust has warned. 

If rumours are true, a new scheme to pay farmers for public goods, like planting trees, is at risk. Soon we may see the UK lose more trees, and plant fewer.   


Dr Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust warned:

"On the basis of what we’ve learned from the government so far since the mini-budget and the Retained EU Law Bill is that the UK will lose more trees and woods, and plant fewer at a time when we need to strengthen protection and ramp up woodland expansion to tackle the nature and climate crises. 

"We are especially concerned about the protection of ancient woods and trees in new investment zones where planning rules would be weaker and recent so-called assurances have done nothing to allay our fears.

"These are unprecedented times for the environment on which we depend for our prosperity and quality of life.

"The very last thing we need is to weaken protections and create uncertainties for farmers and landowners who are helping to ready our countryside for the battle against the climate change ahead."


Weakening planning laws in these areas could put irreplaceable habitats like ancient woods under increased risk instead of protecting these crown jewels of the natural world.

The current proposals risk breaking the Government’s commitment last year to strengthen protection for ancient woodland. Current government proposals could see the UK plant fewer trees, and lose more.

The Government’s net zero plans rely on getting billions more trees in the ground. The success of this strategy will be dependent on financially rewarding farmers and landowners for doing this, boosting nature and locking up carbon in the process.   
If the government is to stay on target for net zero then its new planned Environmental Land Management (ELM) payments must support major increases in tree planting and woodland expansion.

Delaying the introduction of ELM or focusing grants on area-based payments would completely undermine this, sidelining trees and woods in England and making net zero much more difficult to achieve.    


Dr Moorcroft points out that this is a rapid change in direction from a government elected on a pledge to improve the environment within a generation, and to leave it in a better state than they found it. He adds:  

"In May we warmly welcomed the Government’s announcement  to bring the majority of ancient woodland into active restoration by 2030, funded by ELM.  

"In August we again welcomed news that the government would commit long-term support to woodland creation through ELM, giving landowners and farmers the confidence that they could rely on financial support for increasing tree cover.  

"The government must urgently make clear it is still committed to these plans. If it doesn't, the danger is that landowners will hold off planting and restoration for fear that support may now not be available, severely hampering woodland expansion efforts.

"Clarity on the future of ELM, and protections for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland in the investment zones, must follow swiftly."


Building resilience in our landscape to the impacts of climate change is fundamental. This year the Woodland Trust saw some of the most telling impacts yet of climate change, to both its ancient woods and new planting sites.    

Unseasonal storms battered the north, bringing down 80% of trees in some woods in the Lake District. Extreme heat and an extended period of drought scorched new saplings in the south east of England and, most alarmingly, killed ancient trees in fragments of temperate rainforest in the south west. This is the first time our staff have seen impacts like this. 

Tree diseases and pests continue to arrive, thriving in warmer conditions and decimating our precious woodlands. Felling now happens on a greater scale to attempt to control the spread of disease, or to make trees weakened by disease safe.

This Author 

Steve Marsh is a PR manager for the Woodland Trust.