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Natural capital update: The COP26 forest declaration is a start – making it work on UK farms will require a joined-up approach

Eleanor Harris

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use committed 128 countries to strengthening efforts to conserve forests, accelerating their restoration, and promoting sustainable production. What implications does this have for land in the UK? 

The forestry team at Galbraith was asked to comment first – its work in planting and managing woodlands for sustainable timber production is tackling the part of the declaration on sustainable production. With global demand for wood set to treble by 2060, and the UK importing 80% of our requirement, increasing supply is essential for protecting forest ecosystems of the world. Timber will only grow in importance as a material for a low-carbon society as it can replace products with a heavy carbon production cost, such as concrete, steel and plastic.

However, timber growing is not, in itself, restoration of full forest ecosystems. Yes, there are provisions to protect and enhance habitat within the certification requirements of the timber we produce, but no-one would argue that a timber plantation is equivalent to ancient woodland. As one twitter commentator put it, imagining it does is ‘like tackling ground nesting bird declines by opening a thousand chicken farms’.

Most remaining valuable woodland UK is not on forestry sites at all, but in farmed landscapes. So the question was put to our Rural team at Galbraith.

Here the answer is clearer. The UK has a system where trees on farms are largely a liability. Woodland has been excluded from hectare-based subsidy, which means farmers take a direct financial loss for protecting woodland from overgrazing or tree roots from ploughing. Farmers receive no compensation for antisocial behaviour in woodland, or the liability of dangerous large trees. With the people responsible for woodland habitat being penalised for the public benefit it provides, woodlands have been at best, neglected, and at worst, actively eroded away.

We urgently need a more joined-up approach to trees. FAWS – ‘Fields on Ancient Woodland Sites’ should receive as much attention or more than the better-known PAWS – ‘Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites’. Farm production and forest ecosystems can go together just as wood production can. But at present, the policy isn’t there.

That’s why this article eventually landed on the Natural Capital desk. I have the privilege of working across workstreams, breaking down the cultural, regulatory and knowledge barriers that exist between farming and forestry even within in one organisation, or on one estate.

That joined-up approach to land use is opening up all kinds of possibilities for delivering the multiple benefits that we need: food, materials, carbon, biodiversity, and places for people. I hope that the COP26 Declaration on Forests and Land Use will help do something similar in policymaking at national scale.  

*The Scottish Government responded to the declaration by pledging to support the restoration and expansion of the Atlantic woodland and Celtic rainforest in the west of Scotland, one of the most important remaining rainforests in Europe, in its £500m programme for the natural economy.



Natural Capital: Expert advisers at Galbraith guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.