At the recent Accelerating Woodland Creation conference, hosted by the Ecosystems Knowledge Network, our Chairman John Lockhart delivered a keynote presentation on ‘The Business of Woodland Creation’. Not only was the presentation well-received on the day, the opportunity to discuss the points raised led to some valuable discussions on the subject that will have huge benefits to many of our clients.
In this article, John explains the opportunities and challenges for rural business, as it plays its essential role in creating woodland in order to meet the government’s target of 30,000ha per annum, of which 10,000ha per annum should be in England, by the end of this parliament – and the ultimate target of Carbon Net Zero by 2050.
After a steady decline going back to the 12th century, woodland as a percentage of land area in England increased in the 20th century on the back of a realisation of the importance of a sustainable timber resource following the two world wars and the subsequent establishment of the Forestry Commission as part of the 1919 Forestry Act. However, despite this upward trajectory, tree-planting in England is still woefully short of what’s needed and 101 years later, England is looking to learn lessons from Scotland, where the sector has successfully challenged and supported the leaders in government and the Forestry Commission to make tree-planting objectives a reality. It is clear that without similar strong leadership and collaboration between government and the forestry sector, this will not happen in England.
Short-term assistance, long terms gains
One clear barrier for businesses investing in woodland is the fact that a long-term commitment is generally considered to be a permanent land use change. Current returns from timber sales are far into the future and with high capital costs associated with establishment, returns are poor and highly unpredictable.
Current grants, whilst significant, have not been sufficient to overcome these barriers at any real scale, and funding that is simpler to access and can be supported by private investment through a range of blended finance models will be critical if we are to see real change.
Woodlands long term nature and its ability to deliver against a vast range of natural capital benefits, for example carbon sequestration, water quality, flooding, landscape, biodiversity, health and well-being and air quality meant that the long term opportunities are significant. It will only work if we find ways to support such benefits and secure the new planting needed to meet the ambitious targets required for the Clean Growth Strategy and the ultimate goal of Carbon Net Zero in 2050.
Where to plant?
A key consideration is finding the right land to plant on. Land suitable for woodland creation is often in competition with better-understood alternative uses, some of which can result in shorter-term gain such as energy crops, development, food production, biodiversity offsetting and rewilding.
We do not want to be taking our best and most versatile agricultural land for planting and equally we do not want to impact areas of high biodiversity or environmental value. However, this still leaves a lot of possible options including:
- low-grade arable and temporary grassland;
- marginal upland farmland;
- ex-mineral restored sites; and
- Historic landfill sites (which amazingly account for some 0.85% of land area in England and Wales).
As well as the land itself, a flexible approach is needed for tenure with long leaseholds, pie crust leaseholds and joint venture/share (tree) farming all being possible options.
It will be critical that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past such as inappropriate planting on unique peatland habitats in the Flow Country in the 1980’s.
What are the real costs?
Like every investment there are costs, financial and otherwise, involved in embarking on woodland creation with a view to future financial gain. However, as with every project class there will be many opportunities to manage and mitigate these costs to maximise the investment potential.
- The necessary design and process stage must be adhered to before any project can be given the green light, but resulting opportunities arise in terms of engagement, Woodland Creation Planning Grant, scale and collective approach, and possible working models with third sector partners such as the National Forest and Community Forests.
- When choosing plants, careful consideration needs to be given to availability, species diversity, resilience, provenance, climate change and the timetable. Opportunities will also exist in terms of scale, engagement and possible investment in supply chain development.
- At the planting stage, potential issues include labour availability, skills, health and safety, lack of technology and investment, and processes and technique. However, new opportunities through increased mechanisation and scale and cost engineered design can deliver excellent savings.
- Once planted, vulnerable trees must be protected from vermin and the use of plastic and excessive fencing in order to do this can attract criticism. It is important to consider how site assessment and comprehensive vermin control at a landscape scale can offer potential alternatives.
- The issues do not stop after planting and ongoing maintenance is often underestimated and neglected. In some parts of the sector the current delivery frameworks do not favour innovative and integrated solutions. However, efficiencies can be secured through considered design, facilitation of mechanisation, and a more scientific approach, understanding and responding effectively to the requirements of the crop.
- It is also important to consider the real cost of the short term revenues that may be foregone and the cash flow implications of the substantial costs of establishment. Acknowledging these real costs and thinking about how these can be offset through the delivery of real benefits that can be recognised and funded to reflect their real value to the public will be key. In particular it is hoped that the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which proposes to target public money to the delivery of public goods will be able to recognise and support these real values.
Opportunities for business
The planned Urban Lung timber skyscraper in Cardiff is an emblem of the future and of the return to this aesthetically pleasing building material as we turn away in increasing numbers from steel and concrete with the 2050 zero carbon target in mind. Timber construction techniques are improving and evolving. Many construction companies may see the increased use of home-grown timber as a key goal.
Accountability in terms of carbon emissions was finally taken seriously when the plans for a third runway at Heathrow were rejected by the Court of Appeal in February, on the grounds that the proposals did not adequately take into account the government’s responsibilities in terms of carbon emissions as stated in the Paris Climate Agreement. As the first sector with established carbon accounting, under the Woodland Carbon Code, woodland creation now has a clear pathway to revenue. In addition, the Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme is now offering the prospect of realistic returns for sequested carbon with offers being made under the first round in the region of £30/tonne Co2. The second round is now scheduled to run from 8th – 19th June 2020 with a budget of £10million available.
Water quality and flooding
As recent headlines have shown, flooding is a major issue across the UK. As well as providing natural flood management, the planting of trees can also assist with reductions in soil erosion and the reduction of nitrate pollution.
The Environment Bill 2019-20 was created to “address the hidden costs of development” with the Bill proposing that development will be required to provide a 10% gain in biodiversity from the baseline figure. As a long term land use new woodland can deliver real biodiversity benefits more securely than other habitat creation models that will only be secured for 30yrs.
Landscape, health & well-being
Woodland creation offers a unique opportunity to create and restore beauty to our landscape. In turn, this enhances the recovery of the landscape, benefits air quality and improves physical and mental health with public access to green spaces.
Planting the way to a greener future
The real benefits of woodland to society are well known and understood as is reflected in the Government’s aspirational targets for woodland creation in the UK and England. However, if we are to see these targets being met then real and effective leadership and cooperation is needed across the whole sector.
Woodland is a long term commitment and as a society if we wish to secure these benefits for both our future and that of coming generations then we need to ensure that these benefits are supported based on their real values. It is only through achieving this that we will start to see woodland becoming a real and sustainable part of rural property business and delivering the greener future to which we all aspire.
If you would like to find out more about woodland creation or tree planting on any scale, please get in touch.