OVER A MILLION ACRES of new tree coverage could be created in England simply by letting existing woodland regenerate and spread, new research shows.

The findings, commissioned by Friends of the Earth in partnership with Rewilding Britain, bolster calls that the UK government should pay greater attention to natural regeneration as a way to confront the nature and climate emergencies by increasing the country’s tree cover, alongside planting more trees.

Natural regeneration is the process by which trees self-seed through wind-blown seed dispersal or where animals such as jays and squirrels bury nuts which then germinate. The benefit is that it naturally occurs, but is often disrupted by grazing livestock and deer eating the saplings.

New mapping, carried out by Tim Richards from TerraSullis on behalf of the two organisations, shows that allowing existing broadleaved woodlands in England to self-seed by 150 metres on all sides – excluding nature reserves, priority habitats, and productive farmland – would produce a million acres of new woodland. The analysis also identified the local authority areas with greatest potential for natural woodland regeneration, which include Cornwall, Harrogate and Northumberland.

England is one of Europe’s least wooded countries. Evidence from Friends of the Earth shows there is more than enough suitable land to double England’s tree cover, without affecting precious habitats such as peatlands or valuable farmland. Current rates of woodland creation in England remain at historically low levels , with just over 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) established this past year, mostly through planting.

Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, said: “Doubling the UK’s tree cover should be a government priority, this is because the benefits are clear to see. It will help to restore nature and absorb climate-wrecking carbon emissions. By enabling woodlands to flourish, we can also reduce the UK’s dependence on timber imports in a further win for the planet.

“Natural regeneration puts us well on the way to that goal in England. By substantially increasing funding for farmers and other landowners so they can set aside suitable land for natural woodland regeneration, we can let nature work its magic.”

Guy Shrubsole, policy and campaigns coordinator at Rewilding Britain, said: “This new study confirms that natural regeneration has a huge role to play in helping meet woodland creation goals, draw down carbon and help wildlife to recover.

“Allowing trees to self-seed leads to more biodiverse woodland and scrub habitat than if they are simply planted, and supports many threatened species of plants, birds and mammals. By working with nature, it helps resolve the problem of growing the ‘right tree in the right place’ – and does so at lower overall cost, because you don’t have to pay for saplings or the costs of planting them.”

Although the government announced earlier this year that it would fund natural regeneration for the first time with public money, Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain say the terms of the new grant scheme  are flawed. That’s because applicants for the government grant will only receive funding for natural regeneration if their site is within 75 metres of a viable seed source, such as a nearby wood. However, a recent peer-reviewed article  funded by the government found  that trees can naturally regenerate up to 150 metres from a seed source. The grant’s existing terms constrain the full potential of natural regeneration when trees have been proved to self-seed over far greater distances.

That’s why Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain are calling on the government to seize the opportunity to create biodiverse new woodlands cost-effectively by raising the grant threshold from 75 metres to 150 metres from any broadleaf woodland seed source. This is providing that important wildlife habitats are not threatened, nor peat-rich soils which play an important role in sequestering carbon.

These ‘buffer zones’ around existing wooded areas would also need protection from overgrazing in order to thrive. This could be achieved through a mixture of fencing and innovative ‘no-fence’ technology , which controls where livestock graze using GPS instead.

* New mapping highlighting opportunities for natural regeneration can be viewed here.

* Source: Friends of the Earth