Getting trees back into National Parks

  • Contributor information: CNP

24 August 2018

Frances Winder, conservation policbeech Woodland in Northumberland National Parky lead from Woodland Trust, tells us why National Parks must adopt a can-do attitude towards tree planting to become the woodland, tree and wildlife havens that we need. #summerofbeauty

A sustainable environment is the basis of our prosperity and essential to the health and wellbeing of society. The trees and woods within this provide many of our vital requirements – clean air, water, soil, food, fuel and building materials.

Trees also offer huge benefits for wildlife, new woods and trees will help to improve the biodiversity and habitat connectivity of the landscape. These cherished landscapes in turn contribute to our cultural heritage and sense of identity as places to exercise or unwind, or for recreation and tourism. Integrated into farming systems, trees and woods protect our valuable natural resources by helping to absorb water and air pollution, prevent soil erosion and flooding, boost soil sustainability through support of microorganisms and addition of nutrients. They help with shelter for livestock, crop pollination, integrated pest management and product diversification.

And yet woods and woodland biodiversity has been suffering for a number of years. In some places our native woods and trees, and the wildlife they support, have been damaged by land management practices, often supported by Government policies. Woods are often small and fragmented remnants of their former size; ancient woods have been replanted with non-native conifers, affected by pesticide or fertiliser spray drift from adjacent farmland; or suffered grazing, browsing and invasive species impacts preventing natural regeneration


Beech woodland in Northumberland National Park. Photo credit: Tammy Andrews

Many trees do not grow in woodland, of course, but are found singly or in hedgerows, along roadsides, railways and watercourses. Individual trees can be a valuable resource for many species in those areas with low woodland cover where they can provide habitat refuges that support species populations in an otherwise hostile environment. In well-wooded landscapes they act as corridors and stepping stones that increase the permeability of the landscape and contribute to the total area of edge or transitional woodland habitat. But many of these trees have been hit by disease from Dutch elm to chalara – ash dieback.

Wistman's Woods, Dartmoor

Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, legend has it this ancient upland oak woodland contained a sacred grove for druids. Photo credit: Kataryzna Drabek, submitted as part of our summer of beauty photo competition.

The Westminster Government is undertakinng a review of National Parks in England, following the ones recently undertaken in Wales and Scotland, whether and how they are achieving the objectives that have long been set in law: protecting nationally-important natural beauty, providing recreational opportunities and (more recently) fostering local sustainable communities.

As a measure of the first, the woodland biodiversity indicators that we do have – birds, butterflies, bats – all show the same picture: continual declines. It is therefore very disappointing that the National Parks, which should be beacons of excellence for biodiversity conservation, are seemingly satisfied with ‘not being worse than average’!

What we want to achieve are healthy and sustainably functioning woodland ecosystems. In the lowland National Parks this is about tackling the impacts of deer grazing, the impacts of neighbouring land use and creating better habitat connectivity across landscapes. For the upland National Parks there needs to be significantly increased woodland cover which includes the full spectrum of woodland types – single trees, grazed wood pasture and parkland, high altitude scrub and native woods. Often this will be located along stream and gully sides, on former bracken covered land and in mosaics with other habitats. Yet for all the growing recognition of the many benefits trees provide, planting rates remain lamentably low.

Upper dove valley, Peak DistrictOur uplands need to see an increase in woodland cover but tree planting remains lamentably low says Frances. Upper Dove Valley in the Peak District National Park. Photo credit: Peak District National Park Authority.

Another argument we get about the challenges in the National Parks is that it is the “landscape” that is important, with the implication that we need to preserve big, open and un-treed areas. And yet, time and again, when the public are shown images of areas with trees or without it is always the picture with more trees which is chosen as a preference for their landscapes.

So how are we going to solve this problem? A change in Government policy would help and the proposed move from an area based payment to public goods payments is a major step forward. We should also continue to push for proper integration of land management and an end to the agriculture versus forestry debate.

The Woodland trust has been working on these issues for a number of years, helping land managers assess their issues and looking at tree based solutions – from individual trees to hedges and shelterbelts to protect livestock or large scale analysis of the economic impact of woodland management. We can clearly show that trees and woods will deliver for biodiversity and provide long term resilience to land managers.

But we must also change the prevailing culture to a more entrepreneurial and ‘can do’ attitude that does not wait for the Government to tell us what to do; that recognises both the damage we are doing to the environment and the role that we can all play in making changes. The National Parks are the right place to lead this cultural change and to become the woodland, tree and wildlife havens that we need.

By Frances Winder, 

Conservation Policy lead at the Woodland Trust