Current Affairs

UK landowners failing on tree coverage

A recent Friends of the Earth study has found that England’s biggest landowners “don’t have anywhere near enough trees on their land”.

On the Duchy of Cornwall’s estate, woodland cover stands at 6%, whilst on the Church of England’s land, this falls to only 3%. In an open letter, Friends of the Earth is calling on both to commit to increasing woodland cover and help double English woodland cover by 2045.

According to trees campaigner Guy Shrubsole, landowners have “a responsibility to better use their land in a way that helps address the climate and nature crises facing us all.”

Increasing woodland cover is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Natural habitats such as forests act as carbon stores, removing carbon from the atmosphere and thus reducing emissions. Doubling English tree cover would result in around 10% of the UK’s current greenhouse gas emissions being sequestered. Across the EU, woodland cover currently stands at around 38%. England is among the least densely forested European countries, with woodland cover at around 10%.

Among the ten largest English landowners, only the Forestry Commission exceeded 20% woodland cover. The estates of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Church Commissioners, the investment arm of the Church of England, were found to have the least dense woodland cover.

This is despite Prince Charles, the current Duchy of Cornwall, having a well-publicised history of support for sustainability measures, and the Church of England committing to making all parts of the church carbon net zero by 2030.

Commitments to greater tree coverage have already been made by some among the top ten biggest landowners. The National Trust, whose current tree coverage in England is 18%, has committed to planting 20 million trees by 2030 as part of their plan to become carbon neutral.

Land owned by government bodies was also found to have very low woodland cover, with the Ministry of Defence’s land being made up of 15% woodland, whilst Highways England’s land is 12% woodland. Both bodies have embarked on tree planting programs, and the government has recently launched a consultation on the England Tree Strategy, pledging to increase woodland cover.

However, the government is yet to set a target for national woodland coverage, despite the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official independent climate advisors, recommending that 100 million trees should be planted per year in order to reach the government’s climate targets. In order to reach this target, tree planting rates would need to more than double.

However, many campaign groups think this goal does not go far enough. The Woodland Trust has recommended a target of 19% woodland cover by 2050, whilst Friends of the Earth believes woodland cover should be doubled to 26%.

Through unpublished Forestry Commission data, Friends of the Earth found that English woodland cover could be tripled without impacting on other important habitats such as peat bogs or valuable farmland.

If woodland cover is to be significantly increased, the actions of private landowners will be key. Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population, with 30% belonging to the aristocracy. Meanwhile, the public sector and conservation charities own 8.5% and 2% of English land respectively.

Alongside launching public campaigns such as their open letter to the Church of England and the Duchy of Cornwall, Friends of the Earth has recommended that the government boost their incentives for landowners to increase tree cover and rewild their estates. Under the current Woodland Carbon Guarantee, land managers can apply to sell Woodland Carbon Units to the government at a guaranteed set price for the next 35 years.