Land is a critical natural resource, and how it’s used and managed is vital to the UK’s ability to deliver emissions reductions and improve resilience to the effects of climate change. A key response to achieving Net Zero emissions – both within the UK and globally – is to increase the area of woodland. Trees and hedgerows can offer a fantastic opportunity to take carbon out of the atmosphere, whilst providing many other benefits to society.
Measuring the treeline – how UK woodlands have changed over time
The area of woodland in the UK has fluctuated over time, driven by both natural processes and human activities. The Woodland Trust1 estimate that around 6,000 years ago, up to 90% of UK land was covered in woodland as native trees (e.g. Scots pine, birch, willow and rowan) colonised the bare land following the retreat of glaciers after the last ice age.
However, by the early 1900s, only 5% of land was covered by woodland, with many forests depleted for timber supplies during the First World War. In order to address the lack of timber, the Forestry Commission was established in 1919 and, since then, afforestation has increased the area of woodland in the UK to around 13% of land area.
The dawn of a new issue – climate change – has once again highlighted our reliance on woodland for human survival. Where trees were once seen largely as a timber resource a century ago, they are now being valued for their many other environmental benefits, including ecosystem services and the ability to both mitigate climate change and increase resilience to extreme weather impacts (e.g. flood risk).