In partnership with The Woodland Trust

The Woodland Trust explains the vital importance of native woodlands and how we can safeguard them for the future

A diverse structure reduces the risk of whole areas of woodland being decimated

It can be very easy to take trees for granted. An iconic part of our landscape, they give us many benefits that are often forgotten or overlooked, but our woods and trees are at risk. The UK is already one of the least wooded countries in Europe and, now, pests and diseases are threatening millions of trees across the country.

In East Anglia alone, thousands of ash trees have succumbed to Chalara, ash dieback, and the fungal disease is spreading rapidly across the UK. This threat, combined with other pests and diseases, plus pressure from climate change, pollution and intensive land use, results in a sorry outlook for woodlands.

Our economy, wellbeing, wildlife and biodiversity all benefit significantly from the presence of trees. They are part of a healthy natural ecosystem and provide renewable sources of food and fuel, clean water and air. By absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, trees even help to reduce global warming. We need to support these healthy ecosystems and create landscapes that are more resilient against threats.

Native broadleaf woodlands provide one of our richest habits for wildlife, including mammals, birds, plants and fungi. Trees also support a wide variety of insects, without which it would cost £510 million to manually pollinate our crops.

Sadly, woodland habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented and this is having an alarming impact on the UK’s wildlife, contributing to a decline in many species. Thousands of miles of hedgerows, which provide vital wildlife corridors, have been lost in recent decades and we need to ensure that important habitats aren’t lost forever.

It is the trees outside woods, in hedgerows, in field margins and on farms, that are most at risk. Crucially, these strategically positioned trees are the providers of many of the key benefits for wildlife.

Planting trees, particularly a wide range of native broadleaf species, is vital. They help to build resilient landscapes with the ability to absorb natural and human pressures and offer social and ecological benefits.

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‘We are now in an ecological crisis that’s playing out in slow motion. Immediate, extensive action is required to avoid a repeat of the disaster that Dutch elm disease caused in the1970s and 1980s,’ says Nick Atkinson, the Woodland Trust’s Senior Conservation Advisor. ‘There’s no doubt that we will lose millions of ash trees, one of our commonest native species, over the coming decade and, without deliberate action to replace them, there’s a very real risk that loss will be permanent. The Woodland Trust will be assisting in the recovery, helping landowners to re-plant a broader range of native trees, such as hornbeam, field maple and lime.’

Approximately 2.9 million tons of topsoil are eroded annually in the UK, but hedgerows and shelter belts can help to reduce this. Trees on farms help stabilise soils, provide shade and shelter for livestock and boost crop performance by slowing wind speeds. They also improve crop-water efficiency, enhance the aesthetic value of the land and increase soil temperatures to extend growing seasons. Insects that assist crop pollination depend on trees year-round.

‘We could literally see soil leaving the farm and we’ve lost that forever,’ explains Andrew Bainbridge, manager of Haywood Oaks Farm in Nottinghamshire. ‘Trees will ensure sediment and nutrients stay on the farm and that we aren’t impacting on other land, local people and their properties.’

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There are also additional benefits that trees can bring to water management on arable land, helping to reduce flood risk and improve water quality by stabilising banks to reduce sediment and diffuse pollution.

To enhance the productivity and sustainability of farmland, trees can be planted in many places:

  • Along wide verges
  • To fill gaps in hedgerows
  • To create new hedgerows
  • In field corners
  • On stream sides
  • In fields as individuals or small clusters

By planting a mix of native broadleaf trees, we can create resilient landscapes, functioning natural ecosystems that contain healthy trees. This will provide a rich habitat for wildlife and a diverse structure that reduces the risk of whole areas being decimated by one pest or disease.

The Woodland Trust can offer planting support and advice as well as a range of subsidised tree-planting options. Email plant@woodlandtrust.org.uk or telephone 0330 333 5303 for more details or visit woodlandtrust.org.uk/plant to find out more about subsidised planting schemes