On 25 May 2023, the House of Lords will debate the following motion tabled by Lord Redesdale (Liberal Democrat):

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to promote and protect woodland cover, and (2) to control grey squirrels.

1. Woodland cover in England

The UK’s total woodland was an estimated 3.24 million hectares as at 31 March 2022. According to Forest Research, an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission, woodland constituted:

  • 13% of the total land area in the UK
  • 19% of the total land area in Scotland
  • 15% of the total land area in Wales
  • 10% of the total land area in England
  • 9% of the total land area in Northern Ireland

The UK has a lower proportion of its land area covered by woodlands compared with other European countries. For example, 32% of France’s land area is covered by woodlands. In Germany the figure is 33% and in Spain the figure is 37%.

Forest Research has stated around 14 thousand hectares of newly created woodland were reported in the UK in 2021–22. In the same period, around 15 thousand hectares of publicly funded woodland restocking were also reported. For the purposes of these statistics, woodland is defined by Forest Research as a group of trees “at least 0.5 hectares in area with a minimum width of 20 metres, and that have at least 20% tree canopy cover (or the potential to achieve this)”.

In April 2021, the Woodland Trust published a report entitled ‘State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’. It found that, while woodland cover was gradually increasing, woodland wildlife was decreasing. The Woodland Trust wrote:

The UK’s woodland cover has more than doubled in the last 100 years, however much of this increase comprises non-native trees. Existing native woodlands are isolated and in poor ecological condition. These factors, in addition to the widespread loss of ‘trees outside woods’ from the landscape, including treasured ancient trees, have all contributed to wildlife loss.

The Woodland Trust has recommended land managers in the UK needed to at least quadruple the current rate of woodland creation in order to reverse this decline. It also recommended new woodland needed to comprise more tree and shrub species native to the UK and Ireland and that land managers should try to expand existing native woods. The Woodland Trust also argued these steps were necessary in order to reduce the pace and level of climate change and mitigate its impacts.

2. Grey squirrels

Grey squirrels pose a threat to the management of woodlands in the UK. Grey squirrels were introduced to Great Britain in the late 19th century. The Forestry Commission’s squirrel control plan guide (February 2023) includes the following summary of the impact of grey squirrels on the UK and Ireland’s ecosystem:

Grey squirrels pose a threat to the sustainable management of woodlands through the damage they cause to trees by bark stripping. This may lead to a loss of particularly vulnerable tree species (eg beech) which may be accompanied by a decline in associated fungal and invertebrate fauna. In some areas damage can act as a disincentive to the creation of new woodlands for timber because it reduces the value of the trees.

The UK Squirrel Accord is a partnership organisation made up of conservation and forestry organisations, government agencies and private companies. According to the UK Squirrel Accord, the UK red squirrel population has been in decline since the 1940s. Grey squirrels are now the more numerous species across England, with the exception of the Isle of Wight and areas close to the border with Scotland. According to a review of the population and conservation status of British mammals, published in June 2018, there are approximately 2,700,000 grey squirrels in the UK. This compares to 287,000 red squirrels. The report concluded there had been a marked decline in the distribution of red squirrels since 1995 in the UK, although it noted the red squirrel population had remained stable in Scotland. The review found the drivers for species decline amongst red squirrels were:

  • Disease epidemics, including squirrelpox—transmitted by grey squirrels—and adenovirus.
  • Competition with grey squirrels for resources.
  • Habitat quality deterioration, including increased proportion of unfavourable Sitka spruce in plantations.
  • Conservation measures, including control of grey squirrels.

3. UK government policy

Forest management and wildlife control are devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2021, the government published the ‘England Trees Action Plan 2021–2024’. This included a commitment to spend over £500mn from the nature for climate fund to support trees and woodlands in England between 2020 and 2025. The government said this would help the UK to meet its target to plant 30,000 hectares per year by the end of the current Parliament. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in its 2022 report on tree planting, welcomed the government’s commitment to increase tree planting. However, it said the government needed to provide greater clarity on how funding would be allocated. In its response to the committee’s report, the government said the funding would help increase capacity in the tree nursery sector. It also said the funding would support growth in the forestry sector workforce and improve skills.

The England trees action plan also included a commitment that the government would publish an update to its 2014 grey squirrel action plan. The current plan provides advice to landowners in England on controlling grey squirrel populations on their land. Landowners are also provided with financial support for controlling the grey squirrel population through countryside stewardship grants. The government said the new grey squirrel action plan would include more support to landowners, possibly to include funding for capital items such as traps. It also said it would encourage landowners and public bodies to collaborate more closely to control the grey squirrel populations such as through coordinating the use of traps and other measures to manage the squirrel population. The new grey squirrel action plan has yet to be published.

In January 2023, the government published its ‘Environmental Improvement Plan’ (EIP). The government said the purpose of this plan was to act as the first revision of its ‘25 Year Environment Plan’, published in January 2018. The EIP included proposals intended to halt nature decline by 2030 and reverse declines and reduce the risk of species extinction by 2042. It also included a commitment to create and restore at least 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat by 2042, compared with 2022 levels. Section 3 of the Environment Act 2021 also requires the government to introduce regulations setting targets to halt species decline by 2030.

The EIP repeated the government’s commitment to publish an update to its 2014 grey squirrel action plan. On 24 March 2023, the parliamentary undersecretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Trudy Harrison, said in response to a written parliamentary question that the government was taking the following steps to control grey squirrels and protect the red squirrel population in the UK:

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Natural England and the Forestry Commission are signatories to the United Kingdom Squirrel Accord. This partnership, of over 40 organisations seeks, to secure and expand red squirrel populations through the delivery of actions set out in the England red squirrel action plan. Additionally, Defra has provided £300,000, to support research and development of fertility control methods to reduce numbers of grey squirrels and impacts on red squirrels, tree health and forestry. Work to reduce grey squirrel impacts will be supported by Defra’s commitment in the EIP to update the 2014 grey squirrel action plan, detailing commitments to support landowners to manage the numbers of grey squirrels.

The EIP also includes a commitment to launch a new species survival fund to protect rare species, including the red squirrel. The government said in response to a written question on 9 May 2023 that the species survival fund would be launched soon.

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Cover image by Pearse O’Halloran on Unsplash.