Can productive forests provide both carbon storage and enhanced biodiversity? In the public debate across national media and the twittersphere this seems unlikely. Confor’s new Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood report makes the case that planting and managing trees in the UK to produce wood can deliver biodiversity benefits as well as playing a vital role in the fight against climate change.

Based on an analysis of evidence and case studies from across the UK the report demonstrates that suitably-sited forests for wood production can deliver great benefits for wildlife and that appropriate harvesting from native woodland can often enhance its biodiversity value. The report has benefited from engagement and input from a wide range of environmental and conservation organisations.

The need to focus on biodiversity

The acknowledged potential of forests in helping to mitigate climate change has led UK governments to set targets for woodland creation, use of wood and woodland management. At the same time little attention has been paid to the role these forests can play to help tackle the substantial decline in biodiversity in the UK and elsewhere.

Moth
Rosy footman (Miltochrista miniata) Canary-shouldered Thorn (Ennomos alniaria) Buff tip (Phalera bucephala)

Globally, nature is declining and species are becoming extinct as a direct result of human activity. Besides the moral issue of the destruction of life, nature’s decline poses a direct threat to our economies, food supply, health and quality of life. It is caused directly by human activity: a triple attack from climate change, resource extraction and pollution. Put together by Eleanor Harris, Confor’s first biodiversity report presents an analysis of the evidence on forestry and biodiversity, with a view to ensure forestry policy delivers confidently for nature as well as for climate.

Areas of investigation

Three key areas are highlighted in the report:
1. the habitat value of forests planted for wood production,
2. the potential of bringing neglected native woodland into management through the development of small-scale wood production and local supply chains,
3. the importance of a home-grown, low carbon resource in helping reduce the pressure to exploit natural and semi-natural forests globally, tackling the drivers of biodiversity decline around the world.

Habitat value of productive forests

UK countryside with hills in background and mix of softwood and hardwood forests and open green fieldsA substantial body of science suggests that, at present, the forests planted in the UK for wood production have significant value as a biodiversity habitat, in spite of their young age and largely non-native species. Evidence-based management measures have become standard forestry practice in enhancing these maturing habitats, such as creating structural diversity and incorporating native tree species. No more than 75 percent of a forest area may be planted with a single species. Species mixtures provide a more continuous supply of seed for birds and enhance invertebrate diversity. They diversify light levels in the forest, with species like pine facilitating a herb layer of more light-demanding graminoids (grasses) and ericoids (like heather), in contrast to the bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), ferns, and forbs (like wood sorrel) characteristic of spruce. Diversifying forests is also an important consideration for wood production, to mitigate risks from pests, extreme weather and market fluctuations. Modern forests provide diverse and dynamic habitats that attract a great variety of wildlife such as kestrel, barn owl, hen harriers, nightjar, turtle dove, red squirrel, as well as hundreds of moth species and beetles.

Improving the conditions of native woodlands

UK woodlands are globally unique due to two factors: Our oceanic climate creates rare temperate rainforest rich in epiphytes. Our limited palette of native tree species have high genetic diversity and have demonstrated high resilience to a wide range of climate changes. This combination of oceanic climate, open structure and high genetic diversity within species has led to the development of unique assemblages of ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichen and vernal vascular plants that are of global conservation importance. Yet the majority of our native woodlands are degraded and fragmented, with priority species showing declines. Evidence reviewed in the report suggests that wood production can make a contribution to nurturing these into ecological health. This would be achieved through interventions such as sensitive extraction (e.g. thinning and coppicing), promoting tree growth and forest regeneration (e.g. by preventing browsing damage), providing a sustainable income stream to fund active management and create value for the woodland owner, as the basis for high quality native woodland expansion.

Biodiversity impact beyond the local forest

The UK is the second biggest importer of timber globally, and demand is forecasted to increase. Wood-producing forests in the UK help tackle the fundamental causes of nature decline at a global level by reducing our demand for resources produced elsewhere. Wood production sequesters carbon, provides the raw material for green jobs and low-carbon manufacturing, and reduces the UK’s reliance on imported timber which may be harvested unsustainably from natural forests. They help reduce flooding and improve air quality. Using timber in construction also means that extraction based materials with high negative impact on biodiversity elsewhere are displaced.

Recommendations for further research

While there is good evidence on many points, the report also highlights research gaps in a range of areas. These include new woodland creation, management advice on important UK species assemblages, restoration of woodland ecology beyond the trees, studies of forestry within the wider landscape, invertebrates, the ecology of the forest floor, and interactions between forest biodiversity and public access.

As the report concludes: ‘Forests expanded and managed for the supply of sustainable resource, wildlife and carbon is not merely a strategy to avert climate and biodiversity disasters. It is a vision of a future society which is more healthy, more connected with nature, and more truly prosperous.’ We couldn’t agree more.

Are modern UK forests suited to help restore biodiversity?