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When we think of deforestation, we tend to automatically think about the problems occurring in places like Nigeria, which has the world’s highest deforestation rate of primary forests. We don’t tend to really consider places like the UK, but actually it’s surprising as to how much of a problem deforestation is here in our green lands of home and has been for a long time. As early back as the mid-1600s, Britain had no choice but no move to coal power, as the country was beginning to run out of wood supplies. This has snowballed on ever since.

How does this look in terms of cold, hard stats? As of 2020, the following facts show the scale of the problem we as a country have faced, and continue to face, if deforestation does not slow down.

  • Ancient woodlands – that is, woodlands that are over 400 years old – are the UK equivalent of the Amazon rainforest for animals and plant life native to this country. Since the new millennium began in 2000, over 100 square miles of this has been lost, with much of it being irreplaceable.
  • The UK only now has about 3% of its ancient woodlands left.
The Impact of Deforestation
  • If we look at all of the UK’s woodlands, not just ancient woodlands, then from 2001-2020, 481kha (kilohectares) of tree cover have been lost – that’s the same as 1188 acres. If you think 1 acre is around the same size as a football pitch, you can try to imagine the sheer scale of this loss.
  • The majority of the loss has taken place in Scotland, which accounts for 308kha – 64%. This is followed by England, then Wales, then NI.

Impact on the environment

There are many reasons why deforestation is a problem, and it isn’t just the obvious in that animals and plants will lose their natural habitats – although this is a major issue in itself, with animal species such as birds, big cats and simians all facing extinction due to the loss of their homes. Deforestation is responsible for around 11% of the global greenhouse gas emissions at present, and also has knock on effects such as soil erosion, flooding and desertification of previous growth areas.

Looking at climate change in particular, deforestation impacts this problem because of the way trees take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen and water vapour into the air in return. As there are less trees (and plants, bushes etc) to do this job, the amount of CO2 in the air increases. As we’ve touched on before in our Is Carbon Dioxide Really a Monster? post, we all need CO2 to live, but in excess amounts it raises the Earth’s temperature. This in turn causes problems like melting ice caps, long hot Summers with little rain (which impacts crop growth, animal care and human health) and other problems. In short, we need CO2 levels to be controlled, and by cutting down our woodlands without replacing them like for like (which is impossible at the speed we are losing them and how long it takes for regeneration programs to be effective), climate change will continue to be a problem.

Causes of UK Deforestation

There are many reasons behind the deforestation in this country; the primary driver is agriculture, followed closely by mining, logging and new infrastructure.

  • Agriculture – whilst it may seem odd that agriculture is a big cause of deforestation, this happens when woodlands are burned to clear land for either livestock or crops, particularly soy, which is further used to feed animals and has also seen increased demand for human consumption as many move to vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. As we as a nation continue to grow, the demand for food – and the animals that play such a large part in this cycle – also continue to grow. Land has to be cleared somewhere, and the problem is further impacted by increased demands for housing, which both takes up land that could be used for agriculture, as well as clearing land to use for construction.
  • Mining – Mining operations for fossil fuels, metals and industrial minerals all contribute to deforestation, particularly in complex geology areas like Wales or Scotland. As of 2018, there were around 2000 mines and quarries in the UK, although this has declined significantly in recent times as cleaner energy sources have taken hold.
  • Logging – Logging in the UK is a big industry, as Britain’s populace and industry use at least 50 million tonnes of timber per year alone, let alone the requirements from the other countries that make up the UK. Our forests simply cannot keep up with demand, even with regeneration programs in place.
  • Infrastructure – as we touched on above, infrastructure such as housing, schools, warehouses, factories, play parks, hospitals and so on all need to be built somewhere as our nation continues to grow and the demand increases. Whilst land is being reused, there is simply more demand for bigger facilities such as hospitals, schools, housing estates etc than what the current sites can hold.

Illegal deforestation

Illegal deforestation is also a problem in the UK, and one that has recently been in the news as the UK set our laws to curb this both in this country and abroad. Called the Environment Act 2021, this was passed into law in November 2021, and makes it illegal for large UK businesses to use materials that have been produced on land illegally deforested or used.

Whilst illegal deforestation makes up a relatively small percentage of the overall deforestation problem in this country, in other countries it can be up to 90%, and does attract organised crime groups hoping to make big bucks from illegally deforested areas.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Earthsight have raised concerns that the current Environmental Bill does not go far enough to stop the consumption of both wood and the products grown on land that has been illegally deforested to make a difference, but on this one at the moment, only time will tell. It is the Act of its kind from any government in the world, so in that regard, the UK are driving this element of protecting our woodlands.

Regeneration programs

As we have become more aware as a nation and globally of the problems caused by deforestation, various regeneration programs have been set up to try and limit the impact this has. In the UK, programs of note include:

Community Forest Trust – England’s Community Forests program

This has been going for nearly 30 years in all areas of England – it is the largest environmental regeneration initiative in this country. It is not active in Scotland, Wales or NI.

Gov.uk – The England Trees Action Plan 2021-2024

This is the Government’s action plan for woodlands, forests and trees in England covering a 3 year span, with a goal to regenerate the treescape by 2050 in order to reach the country’s net zero goal. One example of how this action plan is progressing is a new community forest spanning 150 hectares being planted in Cumbria, which will see thousands of trees grow along Cumbria’s West Coast.

Nature for Climate Fund from Defra and the Forestry Comission – various projects

The Nature for Climate Fund will see over £12 million spent on four separate funds that will support tree planting; these are:

  • The Local Authority Treescapes Fund that supports 139 local authorities in planting trees outside of woodland areas, both for natural rgeneration and to bring together communities in planting and caring for woodland areas.
  • The Urban Tree Challenge Fund – This covers 46 projects in England with the aim to plant 25,000 trees in deprived urban areas.
  • The Woods into Management Forestry Innovation Fund – £700,000 will go to 17 projects dedicated to restoring biodiversity in vulnerable natural habitats
  • The Tree Production Innovation Fund – This will see £1 million spent on 16 projects that are targeting domestic tree production.

Whilst regeneration programs will not solve the ongoing problems that deforestation causes, they will work to offset some of the damage being caused as our natural woodlands and trees diminish. It is vital however that as a country and a nation, we all educate ourselves as to the impacts of deforestation, and actively seek to undertake activities such as recycling of cardboard and paper so that the demand for virgin materials is reduced. It is also important that we are all aware of our consumption for single use products such as paper straws and coffee cups that also increase demand for wood, and work to find reusable solutions.