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Last edited 25 Nov 2017
The United Kingdom has no natural forest, but has about 650 000 hectares of semi-natural woodland of which 288 000 hectares are classed as ancient and semi-natural (1.2% of land area). This is mainly broadleaved, but includes the native pine forests of highland Scotland.
Semi-natural woodlands are especially significant for wildlife conservation because they support a high proportion of rare and threatened species. They are also important for landscape and cultural heritage.
Timber production and recreation are important uses of semi-natural woodland, but careful management is required to avoid conflict with special wildlife interests. Ancient semi-natural woodlands are especially valuable as some are remnants of the original post-glacial forest. Conservation of natural habitat is of prime importance.
Broadleaved tree species are a traditional part of much of the planted woodlands, the largely man-made landscape of the UK. Most of the common broadleaved tree species are either native to the British Isles, or have been established there for many centuries.
They have been planted for a wide variety of purposes: landscape, amenity, timber production, shelter and game. Their quality as timber trees is variable, but there is always a lively demand for good quality hardwood trees, and the broadleaved resource, as a whole, supports a small but viable sawmilling industry.
The commercial base of the forest industry relies heavily on introduced tree species, particularly Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) from North America. Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the only native conifer of economic significance. There are about a dozen conifer species in common forestry use.
The woodlands of the England, Scotland and Wales reflect changes in land-use over several thousand years. During this period the land, which was once largely covered with woodland, was cleared of trees and used to satisfy the demands of an increasing population for timber, fuel and agriculture. By the beginning of the 20th century woodland cover was around 5%. Today this figure has risen to 11.9% (2.74 million hectares), as the result of commitment to a steady programme of planting by successive governments, and the enthusiasm of many landowners and foresters. It is currently the policy of each country administration within the UK to increase the woodland area.
Due to extensive afforestation and woodland creation programmes, forest cover in the UK has increased by 1.7 million hectares over the last century. However, it is still only 12 per cent, compared to the European average of 33 per cent, the area of woodland cover per capita being 0.05 hectares per person. The high population density of the UK has resulted in uniquely strong public pressure on forestry aesthetics and a demanding forest planning system to ensure that non-production benefits, such as landscape and recreation, are fully considered.
The Forestry Commission serves as the department of Forestry for the Westminster Government and within the devolved administrations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and is responsible for forest legislation and policy in Great Britain. The UK Forestry Standard and the Forestry Act 1967 form the basis for legal and sustainable management. The UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS) is the national forest certification standard.
Extensive programmes of woodland diversification are under way to improve landscape impacts, continuity of habitats, biodiversity provision, continuity of timber supply and opportunities for recreation. Restoration of semi-natural woodlands and creation of new native woodland habitats are also policy priorities, along with the creation of new woodlands on urban fringes. Valuable habitats, such as ancient woodland remnants, are protected as part of plantation management.
From a base of only 1.4% of land area in 1919, forests and woodland have expanded to cover 6% of the land area of Northern Ireland. This is, however, much less than the 10% cover in the Republic of Ireland, 12% cover in Great Britain and 33% cover in Europe. The restoration of forestry was driven first by a need to develop a strategic reserve of timber for use in a time of national emergency, and then by a need to promote economic development through the supply of raw material to sawmills and other industrial applications.
Today there are 86,000 ha of forests, of which DARD owns three quarters. Most of this forest is concentrated in the uplands in the north and west of Northern Ireland and is managed by the Forest Service, an Agency of the Department. The Department has published a target for new afforestation of an additional 1,500ha by 2008 at an annual rate of 500ha.
All forests, including Forest Service plantations, are managed on a sustainable basis and subject to independent audit and certification against the UKWAS. This Standard encompasses the UK Forestry Standard as a minimum, but also requires forest managers to deliver a programme of habitat restoration, conservation and environmental enhancement and social engagement, whilst ensuring economic viability.
Biodiversity is a term used to refer to the diversity of life on earth. It includes genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity, and the interactions among them and with their environments.
Forests are among the most biodiverse and valuable terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. In addition to all the species of trees they contain, forests are also home to abundant and complex communities of plants, animals, insects and microorganisms. Their presence and interaction result in many of the significant ecological processes that take place within forests, including pollination, seed dispersal or soil fertilization.
Forest biodiversity forms the basis of many of the values and services that society derives from forests. These values and services include food (berries, mushrooms), fibre, biomass and wood (timber); habitats and shelter for people and wildlife; and spiritual and recreational benefits (hunting).
However, maintaining forest biodiversity is both complex and sensitive. It is being made evermore difficult by increasing human demands and anthropogenic impacts on forest ecosystems.
Forest degradation and deforestation result in serious negative impacts for forest biodiversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 13 million hectares of forest that are lost each year to deforestation, which in itself has a significant impact on species.
Climate Change is one of the greatest challenges currently facing humankind. Increased severity and occurrence of natural disasters, changing weather patterns, retreating glaciers, polar ice melt, sea level rise and drought are just some of the consequences already being experienced by populations around the world.
Climate change has dual, and sometimes conflicting, implications for forests. Forest ecosystems can act as a tool for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Forests remove significant volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as sinks, capturing carbon and storing it in the forest’s biomass.
Forests act as barriers in extreme weather events, preventing topsoil run-off in heavy rains and protecting people, animals and physical infrastructure from the effects of strong winds. Similarly, wood and biomass from forests for energy and other purposes can substitute for other more greenhouse-gas intensive products.
The climate at a given location determines the type of forest – boreal or tropical rainforest, for example – that can become established. Likewise, when climate conditions change, forests must adapt. However, the timeframe required for the adaptation process is usually far longer than the timescale allowed by changing climate conditions.
As a result of changing climate conditions, forests’ ability to adapt is compromised resulting in a loss of forest biodiversity and forests themselves, and along with them forests’ ability to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate.
As the UN summit of 2005 put it, ‘the three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection – [are] interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars’
In addition to legal, policy and institutional arrangements such as participatory decision-making, the 2007 FAO publication State of the World’s Forests describes the socio-economic functions of forests, as follows:
"The Forest resources contribute to the overall economy in many ways such as through employment, values generated through processing and marketing of forest products, and energy, trade and investment in the forest sector. They also host and protect sites and landscapes of high cultural, spiritual or recreational value. This theme thus includes aspects of land tenure, indigenous and community management systems, and traditional knowledge. "
The importance of social issues in forest management might be best highlighted by the fact that forests contribute to the livelihoods of some 1.6 billion people worldwide. This includes 60 million indigenous people who are fully dependent upon the forests and an additional 350 million who depend on them primarily for income and subsistence. The loss of forests would threaten the way of life and the very livelihoods of many of the indigenous communities that live and work directly in forests and forest landscapes.
Through stabilisation of soil, forests minimise erosion and hence reduce the impairment of water quality due to sedimentation. Forest and forest plant roots prevent run-off from heavy rains and with it soil erosion. Woodlands protect water bodies and watercourses by trapping sediments and pollutants from other up-slope land use and activities.
Forests also play a role in water availability. Forests absorb water as direct rainfall from the atmosphere and through their roots from the ground. Through a process of evapo-transpiration, water is re-released to the atmosphere and the global water cycle. At the same time, forests may influence the timing of water delivery by maintaining and improving soil infiltration and the soil's water-storage capacity.
Tropical rainforests play a particularly important role in providing water for the plants and animals that shelter under their thick canopies allowing them to survive and protecting their biodiversity.
Without forests, there would be increased run-off of rain water and with it topsoil erosion. Similarly, without evapo-transpiration from tree foliage, a key part of the global water cycle would be interrupted resulting in increased drought and desertification.
The World Bank reports, illegal logging costs developing countries over $10 billion in lost assets and revenues every year. With a significant proportion of global wood trade estimated to be illegal, illegal logging also undermines the legitimate forestry sector by creating unfair competition with undervalued products. In 2004 it was estimated through trade simulation models that illegal logging depressed the average price of forest products by 7-16%.
The scale and extent of illegal logging within the forest sector varies widely among countries. In many cases illegal logging has been linked to a variety of socio-political and economic failures. Some of the world’s most forest-rich countries have weak forest governance, which is marked by flawed policies and legal frameworks.
Over the past ten years, a number of initiatives have attempted to address the “demand side” drivers believed to be fuelling illegal logging. A number of regional FLEG (Forest Law Enforcement and Governance) processes have been initiated in different parts of the world to further advance political awareness and commitment to combating illegal logging and to develop transnational, collaborative solutions. Furthermore, a number of importing countries are in the process of or have adopted legislation aimed at eliminating the importation of illegally harvested wood and wood products.
For instance, in 2008 the US Congress amended a piece of legislation, the Lacey Act, to prohibit the importation of illegal wood products. In the EU, through the FLEGT action plan, bilateral Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are being signed by major tropical producer countries and the EU, to establish cooperation addressing causes of illegal logging and to develop systems to ensure the trade of legal products. Additionally, EU proposed Due Diligence Legislation seeks to put in place requirements for importers and producers placing timber on the EU market.
The text in this article was reproduced with the kind permission of --The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification 13:53, 24 October 2012 (BST)
 Find out more
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- 11 things you didn't know about wood.
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- Ancient woodland.
- Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
- Chain of custody.
- Definition of tree for planning purposes.
- Forest ownership,
- Forest Stewardship Council.
- National nature reserves.
- National parks.
- Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
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