Deforestation in Britain – The Long Read

By: Christian Watson

Deforestation in Britain – The Long Read

By: Christian Watson



I n pre-Neolithic times, the UK landscape was dominated by tree cover. This may have been as closed forest or as more open wooded landscapes; however, this declined through a combination of human and climatic factors. By the Middle Ages, woodland cover was down to around 15 per cent of land area. Dropping to a low of around 4.7 per cent by the beginning of the last century.

Many people believe that the UK was covered in enormous trees that towered over the entire landscape, which the Romans, subsequently, chopped down upon their invasion; from the early years of British civilisation to the beginning of ‘pre-modern’ history in 1066, it was believed that we were an island of forest with vast swathes of towering trees dominating the landscape.

However, this is far from the truth as much of England had been cleared as early as 1000 BCE, some two millennia beforehand. The Bronze Age saw intensive farming and culling of woodland on a scale that we are only just beginning to appreciate.Some Bronze Age woodland was naturally kept and managed for what it could provide, such as timber for building materials; smaller wood and shrubs for fuel; food for domesticated animals, but this was small-scale.

Deforestation on this scale was no easy task as most British species are hard to kill. The seemingly constant rain and damp climate means they rarely burn, and most continue to grow after felling. A tree of modest maturity is virtually fireproof, and will hold on until extremely high temperatures. The one notable exception is the Scots pine, which as anyone from the South of England can testify, has all but disappeared from the countryside.

The Royal Navy’s supremacy, lasting centuries, picked off large swathes of ancient woodland. Due to the continuous growth of the Royal Navy, English Oak populations dwindled, forcing the UK to resort to making ships in occupied colonies: such as India which provided Teak for ships and Bermuda, which produced the Bermuda Sloop. There is a rumour that ambassadors for the Spanish Royal Family in Britain were asked, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, to set fire to the Forest of Dean. The fire would have slowed down our progress, and given them an advantage in the build-up to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Currently, most deforestation is due to construction, disease, and agriculture with rising populations, expanding cities and agricultural land becoming less and less productive, as well as diseases being carried over from abroad. During the last century, around 38 per cent of ancient woodland sites were felled of native trees and replanted, mostly with non-native conifers, but also with other broadleaved species and Scots pine. Thankfully some of these sites are now being restored by both the Forestry Commission and private woodland owners to predominantly native tree species, rebuilding our woodlands for future generations to enjoy.


One of the main contributors of deforestation is construction.


So what is deforestation?


I n a nutshell, deforestation is the clearing, or removal of forest which is in turn, converted to be used in agriculture or construction.

Currently, world woodland cover is in serious decline for many reasons: population growth, agriculture, over farming and the production of palm oil to name only a few. At the time of writing, world forest cover is around 30 per cent, while the UK is one of the least wooded areas of Europe, with 13 per cent woodland cover compared to around 37 per cent for the European Union.

Within the UK, Northern Ireland and England are the lowest, having only 6.5% and 9.9% respectively, with Wales and Scotland at 13.7% and 17.2%.

For comparison, France and Greece both have slightly less than 30 per cent woodland cover and Spain has almost 36 per cent cover. Only the Netherlands at 10.8 per cent and Denmark at 1.8 per cent are lower than the UK.


World woodland cover in comparison to the United Kingdom.




S o lets try and put these facts and figures into context. If you’re, all groups of more than one tree is a forest or, sarcastically, a ‘collection’, or variation of that. A woodland is generally defined by the amount of canopy cover it provides. For example, a woodland is only a ‘woodland’ when it has 20% canopy cover or more whereas, a wood or forest requires a canopy of 10% within a minimum 0.5 hectares(ha) (1.2 Acres) and a minimum width of 20m. Canopy cover can be defined as a percentage of total ground area; for example, at 50 percent canopy cover, half of the total ground area is covered by the vertical projection of tree crowns. Unless otherwise stated, canopy cover does not include overlapping tree canopies.

Outside of forests, woods and woodlands there are also definitions for ‘trees outside of forests’, which includes home gardens, orchards and trees in urban environments such as trees lining roads. Another definition, ‘other land with tree cover’, encompasses scattered trees, parks and gardens. It is, however, interesting to note how difficult it is for the forestry service to determine the number of trees outside of forests because of the UK’s unique history of field enclosure using hedgerows.

Coniferous woodland, as its name suggests, is made up predominantly of conifers. Conifers are trees often associated with their needle-like leaves, such as the Christmas Tree. They are usually evergreen but are made up of the native Scots pine and other, non-native, species.

A large amount of the current Conifer forest has been planned in the last 60 years to support the increase in domestic timber production, however production fell due to changes in tax regulation disincentivising the process.

Broadleaf woodland is composed of trees with non-needle-like leaves. The leaves come in all varieties of shapes and sizes, but tend to be flat, broad shapes quite unlike the needles of conifers. Most broadleaf trees in Britain are deciduous, meaning they lose all their leaves in the autumn, remaining bare through the cold winter months until the spring, when they grow new foliage.

‘Ancient’ woodlands are sites that have been dated pre-1600 (1750 in Scotland) and are a native British species such as Oak and Ash.


Ancient woodlands have been depleted for centuries leaving fields sparse.


Moving forward.


T here are an estimated 3 billion million trees in Great Britain – of these, most are native species to England such as Oak or Ash. However, most are a split between Conifer and Broadleaved. Around 44 per cent of woodland is broadleaved, both native and non-native tree species.

Since 1900, afforestation – planting trees on bare land – has added nearly 2 million ha. Because of the land available, mainly poor-quality farmland, conifers had to be the main choice, but this fitted well with industrial demand for softwood i.e. coniferous timber. Due to extensive research into effective establishment, optimum management and, of course, our climate, we can now grow trees faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. As a result of this, Britain has one of the most productive forest estates for its size.



The hard truth.


P oor planting rates, woodland losses, and weak protection of ancient woods means that England is highly likely to be experiencing net deforestation, with areas diseased, felled or destroyed, and not replanted efficiently – some species take a century to mature.

Only 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of woods were planted in England last year, which is embarrassingly far below the 5,000 hectares a year needed to increase England’s woodland cover to 12 per cent by 2060, (an ambition set out by the Government in the wake of the failed public forest sell-off plan which thankfully u-turned after heavy opposition).

Conservationists have also pointed out that the country is on track to suffer a net loss of trees over the next five years, even with our current rate of planting, because of the deadly Ash Dieback, a deadly fungus which arrived in 2012, threatening England’s 120 million ash trees.

The UK population is predicted to increase by 14%, to 75 million, by 2050, meaning the land used for towns and cities could rise from 8% to 12%. This massive jump in population will leave less room for new planting. As a consequence, many forests and natural species will be removed for construction of new townships and ever expanding cities. This goes to further emphasise the need to start planting at the correct rate now, before it is too late. The population rise will also lead to a huge increase in our national timber requirements – of which, 80% is imported – as the UK is already the second largest timber importer, behind China.

Tree planting is also a devolved issue, meaning there are different policies in place across the United Kingdom, with a multitude of ownerships, leasehold, and management arrangements with only around a quarter of forests and woods being owned by the government.

Regulation of planting and management is through a multifaceted approach of legislation, policy and incentives, and regulatory powers split across different arms of government. It is further complicated by the fact that each county has their own regulations as well as different woodland being represented by seperate charitable branches with their own systems.


Stunning landscapes are now sites of turmoil after public land was sold off.


How can we change?


S o, how can we avoid on-going deforestation, halt our current woodland decline, increase afforestation, and benefit the nation, all at the same time? Well, The Woodland Trust outline several ways – a few of which I strongly believe in and have listed below.

1. Incorporate a ‘UK timber first’ policy into UK construction procurement.
     A. The UK is the second biggest net timber importer in the world, after China. This means we spend large sums importing an essential raw material we could produce ourselves, as well as having a heavy environmental impact on global natural forests, instead of creating new forests which would provide an environmental benefit to the UK. Timber can be manufactured into materials to replace other oil-based products in our society, for example the plastic packaging causing such damage to marine life. The government must accelerate green development by supporting the UK timber industry, through both procurement and promotion.

2. Implement an effective programme of protective and beneficial animals into the woodlands, to better facilitate the creation of productive, managed broadleaf woodlands. Phase out firewood imports from abroad both to reduce the threat to biosecurity and to stimulate woodland management through a market for locally-produced wood fuel.
    A. Climate change, the increasing volumes of plant material we import, and the doubt over borders and governance caused by Brexit and ongoing devolution within the UK, all mean that the risk of new pests and diseases affecting our forests are increasing. Ash Dieback and Larch Tree Disease are both ongoing serious national incidents, and Dutch Elm Disease remains an endemic threat. To reduce the risk of more outbreaks of this kind, it is vital that biosecurity measures are tightened.

3. Replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a new Common Countryside Policy, integrating support for forestry and woodland creation alongside other rural support schemes when the UK leaves the EU.
     A. Increased tree planting is recognised as a priority across all four countries of the UK. Planting is stimulated by a grant: it can take two or more years to plan a large new forest, even before it is submitted for approval to Government, so it is vital that landowners and investors have confidence in the future availability of grants for establishment.
     B. Establish confidence as well as rewards for farms that convert their disused farmland into new forests as well as offer advice and support on increasing efficiency of land kept. The food production lost as agricultural fields are planted could be regained with improved efficiency, as the best farms already produce double the quantity of food as the worst. Healthier government food guidelines could also reduce meat and dairy consumption, which produce the most greenhouse gases.

There are many other ways to support afforestation and to halt the decline of our national woodlands and forests, these are just a few easy steps to change the current path we’re on, a path that will inevitably end in disaster unless we intervene. We have the power to change our course and save natural world that is right in front of our eyes. It would be foolish and foolhardy to ignore the problem at hand or, even worse, to not fully appreciate the scale of the issue we face. There are reasons to remain positive, many charities, companies and government bodies are doing tremendous amounts to protect our environment, only more needs to be done. Below, you can find all the information you please, as well as ways to help, donate or even get involved.


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People of Interest and to support


The Woodland Trust
We protect and campaign on behalf of this country’s woods, plant trees, and restore ancient woodland for the benefit of wildlife and people.

The National Trust
From ancient trees to butterflies and otters, our places are full of life. We’re working hard to safeguard nature for years to come.

Greenpeace UK
As a registered charity we spend our funds on work that includes scientific research, education and promoting sustainable development.

Client Earth
ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect the planet and the people who live on it.

Our aim is to support sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses.

Grown In Britain
Grown in Britain is bringing together people and businesses in a way no government or individual company can. In doing so, we’re transforming the forestry sector, growing our woodlands and forests, and bringing about sustainable change that benefits wildlife, the public and the economy.

Woodland Heritage
A UK more self-sufficient in timber grown in healthy, well-managed woodlands that benefit people and wildlife.

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