Forest cover in the UK – The big picture
1 Key points
- World forest cover is around 30 per cent
- The UK is one of the least wooded areas of Europe, with 13 per cent woodland cover (Forestry Commission 2011) compared to around 37 per cent for European Union (EU) countries (Forestry Commission, 2010).
- Within the UK, Northern Ireland has the least woodland cover, just 6.5 per cent, followed by England at 9.9 per cent. The next lowest in the EU is the Republic of Ireland with 9.7 per cent (excluding ‘micro-states’ such as Malta, Monaco and Andorra).
- Of the approximately 3,079,000ha of woodland in the UK around 1 million ha is estimated to be native woodland.
- 552,000ha in the UK is ancient woodland sites (around 2.3 per cent of land area) and of this 223,000ha is planted with non-native species referred to as planted ancient woodland sites (PAWS).
- There are no accurate figures for the area of priority wood pasture and parkland habitat, or estimates of conversion of this habitat to non-native conifer plantation.
- 45 per cent of the UK’s woodland area is certified. Around 87 per cent of harvested softwood (conifer) timber in 2009 was certified. This included both private sector and all Forestry Commission timber.
- There are estimated to be around 3,814 million trees of all types in Great Britain. The majority – 56 per cent – are in Scotland, a further 34 per cent in England and the remainder in Wales (Forestry Commission, 2007).
- There are estimated to be around 123 million trees outside woodland in the countryside in Great Britain.
- Around 30 per cent of UK woodland is managed by the Forestry Commission and Forest Service Northern Ireland.
2. How do we compare?
The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Only the Netherlands at 10.8 per cent and Denmark at 1.8 per cent are lower than the UK (excluding micro-states).
Within the UK, Northern Ireland at 6.5 per cent and England at 9.9 per cent are the lowest in terms of woodland cover. Wales and Scotland are 13.7 per cent and 17.2 per cent respectively.
For comparison France and Greece both have slightly less than 30 per cent woodland cover and Spain has almost 36 per cent cover. Average woodland cover for the whole of Europe is around 45 per cent, although this figure is heavily influenced by the proportion of forest cover in the Russian Federation.
The UK is unusual in the number of individual trees in the countryside, largely due to its history of enclosure by hedgerows – leading to large numbers of trees in these linear features – and its parklands and pasture woodland. The UK is particularly important for ancient and veteran trees; not only are these relatively numerous compared with other countries, they are of very high value for biodiversity and culturally.
Trends and issues Globally, deforestation continues though some regions of the world are seeing increases. In the decade between 2000 and 2010 over 13 million ha of forest were lost (FAO, 2010). Europe, including the Russian Federation, represents 25 per cent of the total global forest resource.
Maintenance and enhancement of the forest resource is one of the criteria for sustainable forest management under the agreement of the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE 2007). Between 1990 and 2010 the area of forest in the UK rose from 2.6 million ha to 2.8 million ha, at a time when forest cover across the whole of Europe also increased. Total forest area of the UK is now around 13 per cent compared to around 37 per cent for the EU.
The 1970s and 1980s saw annual UK afforestation rates in excess of 20,000ha, the majority of which was non-native conifer plantations. Recent decades have seen a decline in afforestation rates and a move towards a greater proportion of broadleaved species.
3. The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees
One issue of concern is the difficulty of recording forest loss. While creation of new woodland is included in statistics through grant schemes, permanent removal of woodland is not always accounted for. With woodland creation continuing at a low rate, and forests being permanently removed, for example for wind farms and other development, or for restoration of open-ground semi-natural habitats, there is a risk of net deforestation occurring.
The decline in afforestation has implications for the UK forest carbon sink. While it increased from 1990 to 2004, as carbon accumulated in growing trees planted during the period of rapid forest expansion in the second half of the last century, it may now start to decline due to reduced planting rates in the last 20 years and harvesting of mature trees. This apparent decline reflects the rules for carbon defined by the Kyoto protocol which excludes second generation forests from the carbon sink.
For more information see: The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees – The Woodland Trust