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UK woods and trees approaching crisis point

New report from Woodland Trust provides evidence of compounding threats that pose ‘catastrophic consequences’ for UK woods and trees
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Bluebell forest in the Lake District

A new report published by the Woodland Trust brings together evidence that highlights a barrage of compounding threats which could have catastrophic consequences for the UK’s woods and trees, plus the flora and fauna within them.
‘The State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’ examines the data and evidence behind the health of the nation’s woods and trees.

It is the first of its kind to focus on native woods and trees, which are such an important part of our natural and semi-natural habitats in this country.

It shows that five major threats are compounding to result in negative impacts that could spell disaster for wildlife including plants, birds, butterflies and insects. 

‘The warning signs in this report are loud and clear. If we don’t tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK’s ability to address the climate and nature crises. Our wildlife havens are suffering, and we are storing up problems for future generations.  
‘The first step is setting legally binding targets for the recovery of nature, including our precious and irreplaceable ancient woodlands and trees. The government’s new Environment Bill must provide the foundation for ambitious, effective and well-funded woodland policies and grants so that landowners and communities can protect, restore and create wildlife-rich, healthy wooded and treed landscapes, in towns, cities and the wider countryside. There is no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline.’

Director of conservation and external affairs, Woodland Trust

The major threats include poor woodland condition; climate change affecting woodland lifecycles; direct loss and resulting fragmentation ; pests, diseases and pollution and a slow rate of woodland expansion.

Declining woodland condition 

Only 7% of our native woodland is in good condition; the lack of dead wood, veteran trees and open space are causing declining habitat variety.

50% of ancient woodland is damaged by commercial forestry plantations or rhododendron invasion. A large proportion of woodland SSSIs are in ‘unfavourable condition’.
Woodland butterflies such as white admiral, heath and pearl-bordered fritillaries are in steep decline.

Dead wood beetles such as bee, noble and rose chafer beetles – a key food source for bats – are in steep decline.

Woodland specialist birds have declined by over 80% since 1970, including willow tit ( Britain’s fastest-declining resident bird, which has declined 94% since 1970), lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser redpoll, spotted flycatcher and capercaillie. 

Flowering plants like spreading bellflower, and lily of the valley are in decline.

Woodland lifecycles affected

Changing phenology (the timing of nature’s seasonal events) caused by climate change is impacting food supply and synchrony, leading to reduced breeding success and species decline.  

Trees are leafing earlier in warmer years, and birds such as blue tit are struggling to adjust breeding times accordingly to benefit from leaf caterpillars.
Migratory birds like pied flycatcher cannot adjust their behaviour to take account of early leafing in UK spring, resulting in reduced breeding success and survival rates (down 43% since a 1970 baseline).

Loss and fragmentation of woods and trees 

Only 2.5% of the UK’s land area is ancient woodland, and many ancient woods are now isolated.   

At least 1,225 ancient woodlands are currently under threat from destruction by new built development. 

85% of individual field trees have been lost over the last 150 years, shown in a study of the ‘Eastern claylands’ of Norfolk and Suffolk. This is likely to be replicated across the UK.  

Habitat fragmentation is causing declines in species abundance; marsh tit – one of the UK’s fastest-declining birds (with a 70% decline in numbers since 1970) – depends on well-connected woods for breeding success.

The once widespread hazel pot beetle is now one of the UK’s rarest insects due to the loss of scrubby woodland edge habitats. 

Pests, diseases and pollution

19 new damaging tree pests and diseases have established in the UK since 1990, and only four in the previous 40 years. 

A 10-fold increase in imported live plant value since 1990 is likely fuelling the increase in new tree disease and pests.

For every £1 earned from importing plants, it costs £50 to manage the resultant pests and disease.

Tree disease and pests are causing local extinctions of wildlife species across the UK; 120 million ash trees alone will be lost to ADB, meaning at least 106 ash-dependent species could see dramatic declines. 

Nearly all UK woods exceed thresholds for nitrogen pollution, which is wiping out lichens and other species. This is leading to disruption and a decline of ecosystems that is causing micro-extinctions.

Clean air lichens (such as beard and horsehair lichens) are disappearing from tree trunks and branches.  

Nitrogen-tolerant grasses and plants are wiping out woodland flowers such as violets, bugle, heather and bilberry. There are fears that bluebells might be decreasing in some woods as other woodland plants like wild garlic dominate.

Slow rate of expansion

Only 290,000ha of new woodland has been created over the last 20 years; in the next 20 years we will need to create at least 600,000ha. The current speed of expansion is not fast enough. 

Over the last five years only 45% of new woodland comprised broadleaf trees; we need to increase the proportion of new native trees if we are to tackle the nature crisis.  

Trees outside woods are not being replaced, yet the two most common species – oak and ash –are threatened. 

Compounding effects

Most woods and trees are impacted by more than one threat at the same time.  

For example, Scotland’s rare rainforest habitat is under threat from overgrazing by deer, plantation forestry, invasive rhododendron, tree disease (especially ash dieback), nitrogen air pollution and climate change. This results in increased rates of wildlife decline and loss.   

Groups of indicator species for all UK woods are showing steep declines. There’s an average 47% decline in woodland specialist birds, 41% decline in butterflies and 18% decline in woodland flowering plants. 

The willow tit is the fastest-declining woodland bird because of poor woodland condition, climate impacts and habitat fragmentation.   

Even our iconic oak is under threat from climate change, disease and pests and pollution.    
A healthy society needs healthy woods and green spaces, not only to help tackle climate change, but also greatly benefits people’s health and wellbeing.

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