A report released this week has argued that natural regeneration should become the default approach to reforesting Britain’s lands, which currently have some of the lowest tree cover in Europe.

Rewilding Britain, the charity behind the report, is campaigning for Britain’s tree cover to double from its current levels of 13% to 26% by 2030, and says that the most effective way of achieving this goal is to prioritise natural regeneration and use tree planting “as a support option.”

The report outlines the extent to which Britain’s landscape is forest-deprived compared with the EU and Europe as a whole, which have 40% and 46% forest cover respectively. Countries such as Sweden and Finland have as much as 69% and 74% of their land forested.

The report says: “We need urgent action to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Expanding our woodlands is a vital part of that. Woody vegetation, and the soils beneath, absorb and lock away atmospheric carbon. Forests also help to reduce flood risk, slowing the flow to streams and rivers.”

Whilst the government’s climate advisory group, the Committee on Climate Change, has recommended that 1.5 billion trees be planted by 2050 to mitigate carbon emissions, Rewilding Britain argues that the process of natural regeneration is more effective in doing this, sequestering more carbon due to the increased complexity of woodlands produced as a result of letting nature ‘do its thing’.

Among many examples given in the report is the rewilding project which has taken place at the Knepp Estate in the lowlands of West Sussex, in which former arable farmland was converted into natural pasture, scrub and woodland through a process which involved the introduction of free-roaming herbivores to compete with the variety of scrub, trees and other plants that were free to grow on the land unencumbered by human activity.

As a result of this two-decades long process, Knepp’s soils have increased their carbon storage by 51%, whilst Knepp is home to the UK’s largest population of purple emperor butterflies, as well as hundreds of species of invertebrates and other rare or threatened species of birds, plants and animals.

The report acknowledges that “natural regeneration is not a panacea,” adding, “It may be decades in most places before a mosaic of forest, scrub and open habitats results but the transition can be surprisingly rapid once it gets underway.”

Nonetheless, the authors state: “With its ability to enhance ecological function and complexity, natural regeneration is perhaps best understood as part of a broader rewilding agenda where natural processes are restored over large landscapes with assistance being provided only where needed.”

In its conclusion, the report calls on national parks and public lands to “lead the way” in establishing diverse habitats through natural regeneration in order to meet the goal to double forest cover in Britain by 2030.

Further, it urges a simpler process of funding for woodland and forest creation, arguing that the current system is “complicated and uncoordinated.”

It adds: “This requires an integrated approach to land use that: protects existing natural forest; massively expands natural woodland regeneration; and incentivises high nature value land uses that maximise species diversity and sustain rural livelihoods.”

Commenting on the report, the author and journalist George Monbiot, one of the founders of Rewilding Britain, said: “While everyone became fixated on tree *planting*, we lost sight of the vast potential for *natural regeneration* of forests. Establishing woodlands this way can be cheaper, faster, wilder, richer. And it needs no plastic guards or glyphosate.”

Lord Goldsmith, the forestry minister, has been contacted for comment.

Source: Knepp Wildland

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.