Getting to the root of the problems facing our forests

Trees are often, quite rightly, referred to as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ but trees and their wider habitats are critical to our lives in so many more ways. The UN has designated 21st March International Day of the Forests to recognise just how important they are.

From providing raw materials for building and manufacture, to providing a home for plants and creatures that are the source of life-saving medicines, we all rely on forests to sustain our way of life.

What do the forests do for us?

Around a third of the Earth’s land mass is covered in forest, with over 1.6 million people directly dependant on the forest to provide work, medicine, fuel, food, and shelter. Forests are also home to over 2,000 indigenous cultures as well as over 80% of the world’s land-based plants, animals and insects.

Forests provide unique habitats at a local, national, and international level, and the UN have designated 21st March as a day to recognise their importance and encourage more to be done to create and support forests worldwide.

One of the ways forests protect us all is countering climate change, but 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed every year – contributing up to 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions accelerating climate change. In the UK alone, our forests are storing over 48 million tonnes of carbon, with another 42 million tonnes stored in soil and leaf litter. If this disappears, huge amounts of carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

Forests can also help with our wellbeing. Research has shown that spending two hours a week in nature is enough to cause a significant improvement in our health and satisfaction, aside from the physical health benefits it brings.

Restoring forests for the future

The theme of International Day of the Forests this year is restoring forests for the future. Replanting forests helps habitats to rebuild and thrive, leading to better air and water quality for all of us, and increased biodiversity.

While it’s impossible to restore an area to exactly what it was before, restoration can improve the health, productivity and biodiversity of an area. It’s most commonly done by reintroducing natural processes which have been removed or interrupted. For example, streams and rivers may have been diverted, polluted or even dried up, so efforts can be made to reinstate clean, natural water supplies.

However, it’s important to find out exactly what the problem is in order to rectify it rather than making assumptions.

An area which looks healthy may actually be suffering due to a change in the nutrients available in the soil, or an invasive species may have been introduced, but factors like these can be hard to spot.

It’s also important to look ahead and anticipate the impact of human activity – simply replanting an area will not enable it to thrive if there is still damaging activity going on.

What can be done to restore forests?

  • Protect existing woodland and trees, especially around their root network

Existing woodland and trees have an intricate underground network of roots, and mycorrhizae (microscopic fungal threads), that offer protection from flooding and provide soil stability. A natural beech woodland can have mature trees of up to 400 years old and provide a huge range of wildlife biodiversity and special self-regulated conditions that are almost impossible to restore once destroyed.

  • Tree planting

Perhaps the most obvious solution, but planting trees doesn’t necessarily result in a restored, healthy forest. It can take hundreds of years to develop a naturalised forest, and, of course, this can be expensive and very time-consuming, requiring seedlings to be left undisturbed to establish. A beech tree only becomes mature to produce seeds from 80-150 years old, and from around the 2 million seeds produced by one mature beech, on average only one beech seedling will ever reach maturity itself. Still, encouraging new planting is an essential strategy to help prevent soil erosion and loss of biodiversity across the UK.

  • Soil improvement

Literally starting from the ground up, reintroducing microbes and small insects can make a big difference to the soil, allowing plants and the rest of the habitat to thrive.

  • Wildlife corridors

Creating a network between forest areas allows animals to travel, giving them a greater chance of survival and encouraging natural migration.

  • Sustainable land management

This is an approach being brought closer to the fore with the promise of new legislation in the UK. It’s still unclear exactly what the Environmental Bill will do to reward farmers and landowners for sustainable and environmentally beneficial land use, rather than basing support solely on the amount of land they have. However, new grants and funding for ecosystem improvements are being developed in both the private and public sectors.

Work is already underway, with the amount of woodland in England having doubled over the past century, and a much greater recognition of the value of forests in every sense – from the ecosystems, plants, animals and insects that live in them, to the human benefits in terms of resources and wellbeing, and the economic gains to be made from establishing thriving forests.

What can individuals do to help?

Large-scale planting can require the support of many individuals, so look out for any reforesting schemes you can back. The government has also recently announced a £2.7million Local Authority Treescapes fund, allowing local authorities to plant trees in areas outside forests. They will be expected to work with organisations, groups and individuals to plant more trees in neglected areas such as parkland, roadsides and neglected community spaces.

If you’re buying products made of, or derived from wood, look for those which have been sustainably sourced and FSC accredited, so you know natural forests haven’t been damaged in their manufacture.

Most importantly, if you’re a landowner or developer, look at what you can do to protect the local habitat. Can land be used in a more environmentally friendly or sustainable way? Is your land use taking into account issues like flood management? Have you got room for an area of forest, or is there an opportunity for a wildlife corridor? Woodland planting can also help to offset or mitigate phosphates from development.

If you’d like some advice about potential measures you could take to protect or enhance natural habitats, or steps to avoid causing damage to local biodiversity, contact us on 01225 459564 or email

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