The EFRA committee report - our response

22 Mar 2022

In a report published this week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee stated that if the government is to create 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year in the UK by 2025, more comprehensive planting targets, better finance schemes and more accurate mapping are urgently required. The report also advises looking at expanding domestic tree production, the forestry sector workforce and increasing the amount of domestic timber used in UK building and construction.  A focus on ‘the right trees in the right places’ is also critical. 
In response, Small Woods are calling for Defra and the Forestry Commission to work with sector stakeholders, such as Small Woods Association (SWA), RFS and ICF, to address the current gaps in provision identified by the committee, which include: 

- Ensuring ELMS provision is available to all woodland owners and managers (it currently excludes many woodlands) 
- Working with sector stakeholders to establish information, advice, guidance and demonstration support for farmers and woodland owners and managers. 
- Accelerating the pace of increasing skills support at all levels to address the looming skills gap.   
- Ensuring the EWCO and ELMS systems offer systems of support that enable woodlands of all sizes to be created and brought to maturity. 
- Ensuring the supporting sectors, such as nurseries, contractors, research, etc., are sufficiently well supported and integrated 
- Supporting an ongoing approach to innovation that stimulates fresh thinking in the sector and brings researchers and sector representatives together to address our common challenges. 
In our submission to the inquiry on which this report is based, Small Woods stated that we believe the main issue is the realism of this sort of significant expansion of forestry planting. In the absence of a complementary investment in the skills and physical capacity that the effective management of this expansion would require, a sudden growth in woodland cover could well lead to a significant increase in neglected, under managed woodlands. This is an issue that already requires urgent action, with 50% of the UK’s existing woodlands currently under managed. 
There is an insufficient focus on management of either our existing woodlands or the ones that we wish to create.  It is irrational to support increased woodland cover when the capacity, skills and infrastructure do not exist to manage the ones we already have.  There are also key deficiencies in biosecurity, pest and disease control and public understanding.   

When examining previous tree planting targets, it is clear they were not backed by the necessary delivery arrangements.  The establishment of the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) is a great step forward, however, more is needed.  In order to create woods that can meet multiple social, economic and environmental needs, there are significant hurdles to overcome.  These include understanding the objectives of the owners and managers, the implications of long-term land use change, the need to develop management skills and provide for more appropriate equipment, and woodland management support that accounts for the period until the woodland can provide an economic return.   
Given the difficulties of achieving large scale land use change, meeting the expansion target is likely to require planting on all sizes of sites.  Small woodland sites will often be easier to create, as there is inbuilt resistance from the current land management structures.  We would favour an evolutionary process of land use change, which would enable farmers and land managers to create wooded areas at an achievable pace. New small woods can be accommodated within the operation of most farms, which could help meet the government’s target.  This will require a campaign to win the hearts and minds of farmers, who are yet to be convinced of the value to their business. Given the structure of land management, there is also a need to consider how farmed land can be transitioned; it is often difficult to accommodate substantial areas of new woodland into the day-to-day operation of a farm.  There is potentially a role for a revolving land ownership vehicle, that could be managed by Forestry England, that buys farmland, handles the conversion and then re-introduces the land back to the market. 
A significant proportion of the planting target could also be met by small woodland measures, such as increasing hedge widths, field corner planting and planting in less productive areas.  Defra have shown an interest in increasing the focus on small woodlands, however, the new ELMS programme has not yet been established a full range of woodland support measures, so we are yet to see whether this will progress. 
We recognise that there are challenges when bringing smaller woodlands into the framework, however, those difficulties have tended to leave the sector under-represented and neglected.  If we are to move towards the goal of a more wooded nation, then these shortcomings will need to be addressed, and the small woodland sector seen as part of the solution. 
The nation needs trees, for timber, carbon sequestration, improved biodiversity, habitat restoration, thriving green spaces and sustainable livelihoods - all of these needs can be met by well managed woodlands. We now require a comprehensive framework for its delivery.  Good progress has been made; completing this framework should be at the helm of the government’s strategy moving forward.