WESTMINSTER'S draft England Tree Strategy has been slammed as 'woefully inadequate' for tackling the country's climate and nature crises.

According to Rewilding Britain, England's forestry policy needs more ambitious targets and a 'fresh approach' – and part of that should be more reliance on 'natural regeneration' of woodlands, as opposed to manual tree planting.

The charity pointed out that Britain was still one of Europe’s least wooded countries, and called for a doubling of the country’s woodland cover over the next decade, from the current 13% to at least 26%, to help absorb 10% of UK greenhouse emissions annually, and help declining wildlife.

By comparison, Rewilding Britain argues that the Government’s draft strategy for reforestation in England would, at best, raise English woodland cover from the current 10% to just 12% by 2050.

The Government’s plan also focus on manual tree planting as a 'quick fix', while the charity's own study – to be published later this year – suggests that allowing and enhancing natural regeneration, supported by native tree planting in suitable sites, would be the most effective long-term approach for 'landscape-scale' reforestation.

“We urgently need an expansion of nature’s recovery across Britain that matches the scale of the threats from accelerating climate heating and species extinction – with clear and bold targets from the Government,” said Rewilding Britain's chief executive, Rebecca Wrigley.

“We can’t replace our lost woodlands by planting alone. Protecting ancient woodland fragments, and allowing and assisting trees to naturally regenerate on a big scale, is the most effective way of reversing the sorry fortunes of our crippled forests and woodlands, and so benefitting people, nature and the climate.”

She argued that letting trees and shrubs naturally regrow over much of their former landscapes – with a helping hand where needed, such as preparing the ground when necessary or sowing tree seeds when naturally available seed sources are too far away – would create woodlands better able than plantations to soak up carbon dioxide, support wildlife, and adapt to a changing climate. At the same time, costs and management, imported tree diseases, and plastic tree guards would all be reduced.

Some of the major barriers to natural regeneration are attitudes towards scrub – which Ms Wrigley described as a 'superb habitat and nursery' for young trees, that was often seen as a waste of space or untidy – and over-grazing of trees by herbivores.

The Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme should address these challenges by offering landowners financial incentives for allowing natural regeneration of trees – avoiding the pitfalls of previous schemes which penalised landowners for unmanaged areas – and support marginal upland farming in shifting from low-productivity sheep and deer ranching to rewilding.

But to double Britain’s woodland cover, the Government should raise annual investment from £50 million now to at least £500 million, she argued. Economic benefits would include jobs in forestry, tourism and ecosystem restoration, with the many benefits of trees – carbon drawdown and storage, flood mitigation, urban cooling, improved soil and water quality, and wildlife habitat – far outweighing such upfront costs.

Of course, Rewilding Britain believes that natural regeneration of woodlands should be part of a broader rewilding – the large-scale restoration of nature by letting it take care of itself. Evidence from Friends of the Earth suggests that there is more than enough suitable land to double England’s tree cover, without affecting precious habitats such as peatlands or valuable farmland.

“Our ancient woodlands are only absent because we’ve destroyed them and continue to work hard to prevent their return through over-cutting, over-mowing and over-grazing. If we let them, millions of trees would plant themselves across most of Britain,” said Ms Wrigley.