UK told to brace for forestry catastrophe

There are dire warnings of a catastrophic collapse in the UK’s forestry eco system in the next 50 years as climate change threatens to prompt a fight for water between humans and the country’s forests.

A team of experts from across Europe has created a list of 15 over-looked and emerging issues that are likely to have a significant impact on UK forests over the next 50 years.

This is the first ‘horizon scanning’ exercise – a technique to identify relatively unknown threats, opportunities, and new trends – of UK forests. The aim is to help researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and society in general, better prepare for the future and address threats before they become critical.

Dr Eleanor Tew, first author, visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said: “The next 50 years will bring huge changes to UK forests: the threats they face, the way that we manage them, and the benefits they deliver to society.”

Forestry England, a part of the Forestry Commission, collaborated with the University of Cambridge on the study. A panel comprising 42 experts identified the top 15 issues they believed were likely to have the greatest impact on UK forests in the next 50 years. This included Dr Rebecca Spake,  a lecturer in ecology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading.

The research method did not support the overall ranking of the 15 issues in order of importance or likelihood of occurrence. However, when the issues were scored individually by the panel of experts, it was notable that ‘catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ was the most highly ranked issue, with 64% of experts ranking it as their top issue and 88% ranking it within their top three.

‘Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ refers to multiple interrelated hazards that have a cascading effect on forests, leading to their total or partial collapse. This has already been witnessed in continental Europe and North America.

Another issue identified was that droughts caused by climate change may lead to competition for water resources between forests and society. On the other hand, forests may help to mitigate the impact of floods caused by climate change.

Tree viral diseases were also identified as an issue. In the UK, pests and pathogens are increasing due to globalisation and climate change, with viruses and viroids (RNA molecules) being the largest group on the UK Plant Health Risk Register. However, little is known about how viral diseases affect forest tree species and indeed the wider ecosystem.

A further issue was the effect of climate change on forest management, with extreme weather leading to smaller windows of time when forestry can be carried out. Experts warn that the seasons for carrying out work such as harvesting and thinning are getting narrower as we see wetter winters and scorching summers.

Spake said: “The horizon scan has highlighted emerging threats that are currently less widely appreciated across the forestry sector. It is so important that we consider how these threats might interact with ongoing, better-known threats to UK forests. For example, we will be mindful to consider these emerging threats in Project iDeer, which aims to facilitate strategic woodland creation and management that minimises the impacts of high densities of wild deer on new and existing woodland in England and Wales.”

However not all emerging issues are threats – some are new opportunities. For example, the team said trees will be at the heart of future urban planning. Experts predict that ‘forest lungs’ will be created thanks to an increased understanding of the benefits of trees for society. They say there will likely be a greater blurring of boundaries between urban and rural areas, with an increase in green infrastructure and connectivity.