“We urgently need an expansion of nature's recovery across Britain that matches the scale of the threats from accelerating climate heating and species extinction – with clear and bold targets from the Government,” said Rebecca Wrigley, Rewilding Britain's Chief Executive.
“We can't replace our lost woodlands by planting alone. Protecting ancient woodland fragments, and allowing and assisting trees to naturally regenerate on a big scale, is the most effective way of reversing the sorry fortunes of our crippled forests and woodlands, and so benefiting people, nature and the climate.”
Letting trees and shrubs naturally regrow over much of their former landscapes – with a helping hand where needed, such as preparing the ground when necessary or sowing tree seeds when naturally available seed sources are too far away – would create woodlands better able than plantations to soak up carbon dioxide, support wildlife, and adapt to a changing climate. Costs and management, imported tree diseases, and plastic tree guards would all be reduced.
A doubling of Britain's woodland cover would include areas of land over which young trees are naturally establishing, and which will grow into the forests and wildwoods of the future.
Major barriers to natural regeneration are attitudes towards scrub – a superb habitat and nursery for young trees, but often seen as a waste of space or untidy – and over-grazing of trees by herbivores.
The Government's new Environmental Land Management Scheme should address these challenges by offering landowners financial incentives for allowing natural regeneration of trees – avoiding the pitfalls of previous schemes which penalised landowners for unmanaged areas – and support marginal upland farming in shifting from low-productivity sheep and deer ranching to rewilding.
To double Britain's woodland cover, the Government should raise annual investment from £50 million now to at least £500 million. Economic benefits would include jobs in forestry, tourism and ecosystem restoration. The many benefits of trees – carbon drawdown and storage, flood mitigation, urban cooling, improved soil and water quality, and wildlife habitat – far outweigh such upfront costs.
Rewilding Britain says natural regeneration of woodlands should be part of broader rewilding – the large-scale restoration of nature by letting it take care of itself. This includes better protection for ancient woodlands, and ensuring a diverse mix of better-connected habitats.