Threatened woodlands in the UK highlighted in BBC’s Wild Isles

Threatened woodlands in the UK highlighted in BBC’s Wild Isles
Woodlands are a deeply threatened ecosystem which many communities and animals rely upon

The rich biodiversity of the UK’s threatened woodlands were the feature of the latest episode of the BBC’s Wild Isles documentary. In the Scottish Highlands, the Caledonian pinewoods support majestic open-grown pines and broadleaf trees in mosaic habitats against a backdrop of mountains. The mild, wet influence of the Atlantic gives rise to temperate rainforest, with ancient trees covered in epiphytic mosses and lichens. While lowland mixed deciduous woodland with their carpets of wildflowers are a familiar spring spectacle. These woodlands are important both for the wildlife they harbour and for the many benefits they provide for human societies. For example, mature woodlands provide important habitat for specialist species, such as the pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), a summer visitor to the UK, that relies on mature upland woodland to breed. Other charismatic species, such as red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), are dependent on trees for food and shelter, but habitat loss and invasive grey squirrels(Sciurus carolinensis) have pushed them out of most of their historic habitat; they are at risk of extinction in England within the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, woodlands protect communities from flooding and landslides by stabilizing soils and slopes, harbour species important for crop pollination and pest control, and support fertile soils. As native woodlands regenerate they also become an important part of carbon storage within UK landscapes.

Despite their importance for nature and society, woodlands in the UK now only cover a small fraction of their former extent. As of March 2022, it is estimated that total woodland cover is 3.24 million hectares. This is 13% of the total land area in the UK (19% of Scotland, 15% of Wales, 10% of England, and 9% of Northern Ireland).

However, almost half of this forest cover consists of non-native species and tree plantations. In some cases forests are planted using non-native species and don’t consider the needs of local biodiversity. Natural regeneration of native forests is also limited due to the overbrowsing of species such as red deer (Cervus elaphus) which have overpopulated previously forested areas.

The Cairngorms Connect project in Scotland provides a diverse picture of what modern woodland restoration in the UK can look like. As the biggest habitat restoration project in Britain, it spans 600 square kilometers of wild land, 9,800 ha of native woodland, 10,000 ha of rich peat bog, and 23,000 ha of montane habitat, with 5000 recorded species. This project provides an inspiring example of habitat restoration at the landscape scale, working to restore a functioning network of interconnected habitats. As numbers of wild herbivores are reduced, natural woodland regeneration is increasing within the forest habitat and expanding beyond its edges. Plantation forest is being restructured to allow in light and create deadwood habitats, and trees inappropriately planted on bogs are being removed. Cairngorms Connect cultivates trees in its own tree nursery, these are being used for enrichment planting and to restore montane woodland, one of the UK’s rarest woodland habitats. Peat bogs and floodplain habitats are being restored alongside woodland habitats, by reinstating natural processes through rewetting bogs and reconnecting rivers to their floodplains.

Woodlands are some of the UK’s most treasured habitats, supporting specialist species and providing a wide range of benefits to people. The UK has ambitious plans for woodland creation to 2050, but careful planning from the site to landscape scale is needed to ensure the benefits of this are maximised, and recognition of the value of our existing woodland is also crucial.

To learn more about how you can help protect our woodlands visit the Save Our Wild Isles Campaign page.