Let's find out what the new Environmental Improvement Plan delivers for trees
There's some good news in there...
A tree is a tree, whether it grows within a woodland, or in a park, field, or street. This might sound so obvious that it isn’t worth saying, but ‘trees outside woodlands’ have often been given less recognition than their woodland counterparts. For instance, government targets have related only to woodlands. Now this is set to change; in the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), ‘non-woodland trees’ have been included in the national tree canopy cover target. This will give greater weight to the planting of trees in our towns, cities and farmland.
It is brilliant news for those who – like myself and colleagues at The Tree Council – plant, protect, and champion trees. Its publication comes not long after a study by Forest Research and Defra revealed the economic value of trees outside woodlands in the UK is £3.8 billion, confirming what we already knew – that these trees are essential to our lives.
What does the EIP mean for trees?
The Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 for England is essentially the action plan to the 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP). At 262 pages, it is a long document (well done if you’ve read it all!), with much to unpack and unpick. So we thought we would select some of the most important and intriguing announcements and share them with you.
1. A canopy cover target that includes trees in all settings
As above, it is great to see trees beyond the woodland context being included in the national target, which seeks to increase tree canopy and woodland cover in England from 14.5% to 16.5% of total land area by 2050. This should bring more trees closer to where most of us spend our daily lives and put into practice the findings of landmark research programmes such as the Shared Outcomes Fund for Trees Outside Woodlands.
2. Hooray! A hedgerow target…
We’re delighted to see a hedgerow target, with the government pledging to support creation and restoration in order to reach a total of 360,000 glorious miles of hedgerow. With opportunity comes a challenge – and this is certainly a target that will require hard graft, appropriate funding, and partnership working. Get your spades ready! Hedgerow projects are already gaining traction – see, for example, the Great Big Dorset Hedge – and we are excited for more hedgey happenings across the country. The focus in the EIP is on hedgerows in the farmed landscape, but going forwards it would be nice to see our urban hedges receive similar attention.
…and hedgerow protection, too!
Concerns have been simmering about the possible gap in legal protection for hedges when cross-compliance protections are lost in 2024. These fears may be somewhat allayed by a nod in the EIP: “We will ensure that hedgerows continue to be protected when existing cross compliance protections are lost in 2024.” Protecting our existing hedgerows is just as critical as planting more of them, so we look forward to more detail about new mechanisms to safeguard this habitat.
3. A leading role for Local Authorities
Having spent the last couple of years working closely with Local Authorities, I’m very happy to see their vital role acknowledged in the EIP. The government commits to “increasing tree planting on public land and support local authorities to plant more trees”. The Trees and Woodland Strategy toolkit is flagged as a key resource to underpin this – it has been produced by The Tree Council, Fera Science and Forest Research and created with LAs at its heart. We are helping to coordinate ongoing research, and will be holding workshops in various regions in England to discover what else is needed. We know that LAs are under huge pressure in terms of finance and capacity; while it won’t address the issue entirely, the EIP commits to extending the popular Urban Tree Challenge Fund.
4. Growing capacity
We need more trees! Currently the nursery sector is said to be able to deliver 150 million trees per year, but this needs to increase significantly to achieve targets. There is funding on offer to support this, via the Seed Sourcing Grant (£1.2m), Tree Production Innovation Fund (£5.7m), and Tree Production Capital Grant (£8.8m). This might open up all sorts of interesting opportunities to grow the much-needed diverse and resilient seedlings and saplings of the future.
We also need to nurture the next generation of foresters and arboriculturalists – the tree experts of the future who will be tasked with caring for our treescapes. The EIP lists several opportunities for education and training, such as the Forestry Training Fund, which can support individuals to learn and gain valuable new skills.
What does this mean for the tree sector?
In some respects the EIP means more of the same for our sector, mainly because a lot of the relevant points echo the ambitions of the existing England Trees Action Plan or highlight existing policy. However, there are some stand-out points that signal a shift in approach, particularly the stronger inclusion of trees outside woodlands in national objectives and the confirmed ambition for hedgerows. Both of these are tree-mendous news – but crucially will require more funding and more focus to deliver. It’s important that the burden and pressure of meeting these challenges is taken on collectively and in the spirit of partnership.
Jess Allan is The Tree Council’s Science and Research Projects Manager