Skip to main content

Tree planting and woodland creation position statement

We recognise the value of wooded habitats and support the ambition to increase woodland cover, but it is essential to understand that large-scale tree planting, even of native species, is only one part of a complex puzzle of actions needed to restore a range of natural habitats.

A footpath through a woodland awash with bluebells and other spring flowers.

The UK Government, under the Environment Act (2021), has set a legally binding target to increase woodland coverage in England to 16.5% by 2052, equivalent to approximately 250,000 hectares. Similar tree planting ambitions exist for Scotland (18,000 hectares per year by 2025), Wales (43,000 hectares by 2030), and Northern Ireland (9,000 hectares by 2030). These efforts aim to combat climate change, enhance biodiversity, promote economic benefits, offer ecosystem services, and improve human well-being.

This statement sets out the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s position on tree planting and woodland creation in the UK. We recognise the value of wooded habitats and support the ambition to increase woodland cover, but it is essential to understand that large-scale tree planting, even of native species, is only one part of a complex puzzle of actions needed to restore a range of natural habitats. This range is needed to ensure diverse and resilient landscapes and tackle the nature and climate crises. Importantly, the creation of new woodlands must be done strategically, without being disproportionately targeted over the creation and restoration of other threatened habitat types (‘the right tree in the right place’). We are particularly concerned about the potential loss of open habitats which are vital for bumblebee and pollinator survival.

We recommend a focus on strategic habitat creation, promoting the right habitats in the right places; natural regeneration and improved management of existing woodlands to boost biodiversity; and unlocking alternative nature-based solutions, with a specific focus on species-rich grasslands, to foster both nature’s recovery and climate mitigation.

Delivering the right wooded habitats for nature’s recovery

Increasing wooded habitat coverage is crucial for reversing the decline in biodiversity. However, biodiversity in woodlands varies depending on several factors, including tree species, diversity, age structure, the level of canopy and understory cover, management, and surrounding habitats. Simply planting trees may not necessarily increase biodiversity and can even reduce it in some cases. Natural regeneration and better management of existing woodlands often yield more benefits for nature, including that of neighbouring habitats. Conversely, densely stocked non-native conifer plantations are the least biodiverse wooded habitats.

Benefit to bumblebees and pollinators

Though bumblebees are predominantly animals of open habitats, they benefit from wooded habitats as part of diverse landscapes. Well-structured woodlands with open areas, herbaceous understories and edge habitats provide crucial floral resources throughout their active season (March to October), as well as nesting opportunities and potential hibernation sites for mated queens. In wooded areas, bumblebees and other pollinators primarily benefit from flowering trees and wildflowers in the ground layer, which provide pollen and nectar. Well-established hedgerows with flowering trees can also be of great benefit, connecting landscapes and providing food and nesting resources. Wood pastures, fruit trees, and orchards play an important role in supporting pollinators. Overall, biodiverse woodlands and hedgerows can help support other important ecosystem services to neighbouring crops, such as pollination and natural pest control.

Restoring wooded habitats in the right places

It is vital that increases in wooded habitats are delivered strategically to avoid the loss of other habitats like species-rich grasslands, heathlands, and peatlands. However, current government-backed woodland creation schemes across the UK cannot fully account for habitats like species-rich grasslands, which are often small and fragmented, because up-to-date spatial mapping and monitoring of these habitats does not receive the same priority afforded to trees and peat, leaving them vulnerable to being planted on (see case from Cumbria).

Disproportionately favouring woodland creation is likely to lead to unintended negative outcomes for other habitats and species. Under the current system, tree planting is often targeted on marginal, low-productivity agricultural land and other open ground. Such sites are often excellent bumblebee habitats or have the potential to become this through enhancement of the existing habitat. In some cases, even relatively small losses of these areas could have very significant impacts on our rarest bumblebee species, which are already struggling in our highly fragmented landscapes. Furthermore, most tree planting is being undertaken by the private sector with very few safeguards in place, presenting a further risk of inappropriate planting of trees on high-quality open habitats.

There is a case for targeting tree planting in urban areas. Areas in development could benefit from wooded habitat creation (along with other semi-natural habitats) to help meet tree planting targets, whilst also benefiting biodiversity and delivering other associated ecosystem services. Existing green spaces, including some green belt areas, could also be targeted for wooded habitat expansion, especially through natural regeneration of existing woodlands. As well as meeting tree-planting targets this approach would help people by increasing the area of accessible greenspace as laid out in the Green Infrastructure Plan, for example.

Carbon sequestration considerations

The governments of the UK, Wales and Northern Ireland have set a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Scottish Government is aiming for 2045. A major driver for increased tree planting is to tackle climate change and help meet sustainability targets through increased carbon sequestration. The degree to which woodlands capture and store carbon will depend on many factors including the type of soil they are planted on, tree species, commercial harvesting methods and crop rotation lengths, meaning some woodlands will be more effective than others. In 2017, the UK’s woodlands only captured 4% of the UK’s total emissions. Even with the intended increases in woodland cover, trees could only capture a small proportion of carbon emissions and climate change mitigation must prioritise emission reduction over offsetting.

Expanding tree cover is part of the solution, however wooded habitats are not the only nature-based solution to store carbon. Peatlands store vast amounts of carbon and are recognised for their significant role in achieving net zero (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have action plans for peat). Several other habitats, however, are not currently considered in this context within national governmental policy, despite evidence which shows they are important. For example, it has been estimated that Britain’s grasslands already hold two billion tonnes of carbon in their soils. There is evidence that some semi-natural grasslands can store more soil organic carbon than woodlands, whilst also offering more stable climate change mitigation as they are at less risk of fire and the impacts of pests and disease with approximately 90% of carbon stored underground. The more diverse the grassland in terms of plant species, the better it is at locking up carbon and increasing biodiversity, including that of bumblebees and other conservation-priority wildlife species.

Balancing the priorities

Taking a balanced and holistic strategy of right habitat, right place, will achieve landscapes which deliver the most appropriate benefits for nature, climate, and people. All our natural and semi-natural habitats have important roles to play in sequestering carbon, mitigating the extreme weather events related to climate change, recovering nature, and ensuring that our native plants, animals, and fungi can adapt to climate change.

It is important that the mechanisms by which governments support habitat provision such as agri-environment schemes or Biodiversity Net Gain take a joined-up, spatially sensitive approach which values habitats and the species which occur in them fairly. New schemes like Local Nature Recovery Strategies in England represent an opportunity to map and account for existing habitats and offer new opportunities to recover nature. Using this information along with species-focused data to form a big picture perspective (e.g. Nature Recovery Network) to inform sensible habitat delivery decisions will be key.


Strategic habitat creation

Implement co-ordinated land use strategies and policy interventions at national and local levels to ensure the right habitats are created in the right places. This will require offering equitable incentives for restoring different habitat types and the development of rigorous assessments to ensure that proposed land-use changes (e.g. tree planting schemes) do not contribute to loss of important habitats and species, or better suited opportunities for alternative habitat creation (e.g. species-rich grasslands). Urban areas, including new developments and green belts offer opportunities for sensible woodland expansion and creation that benefit people too.

Natural regeneration, native species, and better management

As tree cover is expanded, the focus should be on natural regeneration and better management of existing wooded habitats. Only native species should be the focus to extend existing woodlands and hedgerow networks, as well as specific management to enhance biodiversity benefits at landscape level, especially for bumblebees and pollinators. Governments and public bodies should offer improved resources, advice and incentives for landowners, managers, and investors to ensure that the biodiversity benefits of wooded habitats, especially for bumblebees and other priority-conservation wildlife species, are achieved.

Unlock alternative nature-based solutions

Governments across the UK must recognise the pivotal role that other habitats play in addressing the climate and nature crises. Species-rich grasslands, which have suffered losses exceeding 97% since the 1930s, present substantial opportunities for enhancing biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and providing essential ecosystem services. We want to see comprehensive grasslands action plans established, on par with efforts dedicated to woodland and peatland restoration, as a proactive approach to combatting climate change and fostering nature recovery (for additional information and supporting evidence, refer to the Plantlife-led Grasslands Action Plan campaign).