Many of England’s biggest landowners are not doing enough to plant trees to tackle the climate crisis, according to new data.
Government departments, companies such as United Utilities and Network Rail, the royal family and organisations such as the Church of England and the National Trust are among the biggest owners of land in the country, but most have forest cover on their land that is only slightly above the national average, despite having pledged to reduce their carbon footprint.
Tree cover makes up about 10% of England’s overall land area, but out of the top 10 landowners, only the Forestry Commission had a substantially greater forested area than this average, according to data compiled for the first time by Friends of the Earth.
That shows most of the biggest landowners could and should do more to plant trees, according to the campaigning charity, which is calling for a doubling of the UK’s forest cover as part of the push to net zero carbon emissions.
“Much of England is owned by a very small number of landowners, who have a responsibility to better use their land in a way that helps address the climate and nature crises facing us all,” said Guy Shrubsole, a trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “A big part of [tackling these crises] means growing more trees, which would remove planet-wrecking carbon from the air and provide homes for wildlife.”
The Ministry of Defence and Highways England are both government bodies, with 15% and 12% tree cover on their land in England respectively. The government has pledged to ensure more land is devoted to woodland, as part of its England Tree Strategy. Shrubsole said the government should do more on its own estate, and more to enable other landowners to plant trees.
“[The government] didn’t even set a tree target for the country,” he said. “This lack of ambition shows a complete disregard for the climate crisis. Ministers must turn this around, by committing to a target to double UK tree cover, and providing better incentives for landowners to grow more trees and rewild their estates.”
Some of the organisations named in the report are embarking on tree-planting programmes, which will substantially increase the amount of tree cover on their land. For instance, the National Trust announced in January plans for 20m new trees on its estate, which would cover an area one-and-a-half times the size of Manchester, or the equivalent of 42 Sherwood Forests.
Patrick Begg, the outdoors and natural resources director at the National Trust, said: “We are absolutely supportive of planting more trees, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. [Our 20m tree plan] will ensure we meet the Committee on Climate Change recommendations of an increase in woodland cover from 10% to 17% in England and Wales by 2050.”
The Duchy of Cornwall is also conducting a natural capital assessment of its land, which is likely to result in more tree planting, and the water companies – including United Utilities, which currently has only 17,000 hectares of woodland among its 141,000 hectares – have pledged to plant 11m trees.
In some cases, landowners are also constrained by the nature of their land and the uses to which it can be put. For instance, the Duchy of Cornwall’s landholdings include a large section of Dartmoor, which by its moorland nature lacks trees, and some of the RSPB’s holdings are wetlands.
The Duchy, alongside other major landowners named in the report, such as the Crown Estate and National Trust, also maintains a lot of farmland, much of which cannot be converted without harming the UK’s food production capacity.
However, Friends of the Earth said more must be done to encourage forestry schemes on marginal agricultural land if the UK is to meet its net zero carbon targets, and said many of the tree-planting schemes planned by the top ten landowners were inadequate.
The group said water companies’ plans for 11m trees would cover a tiny proportion of their overall holdings, and that the companies could go much further. For instance, a large amount of the land owned by United Utilities is given over to rough grazing, which in former times, with less intensive farming, would have contained more trees.
A spokesperson for United Utilities said: “We must balance the sometimes competing interests of water quality, biodiversity, farming and access and recreation. Tree-planting plays an important role, which is why we have planted 2m trees since 1995 and we plan to plant 1m more over the next ten years.”
National Rail, which is named in the report as having 11% tree cover on its land, has been criticised in recent years for felling large numbers of trackside trees. The company did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
A spokesperson for the Duchy of Cornwall told the Guardian: “Over the last 20 years, in his role as Duke of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales has increased Duchy woodland by more than half, through planting and purchasing, totalling approximately 20,000 trees. Throughout his tenure, the Duke has ensured that most of his woodland is managed inhouse by the Duchy estate.”
The Church of England disputed the Friends of the Earth analysis, and said its tree cover was much higher than the 3-4% that the report suggested. A spokesperson for the Church Commissioners for England said: “We do not recognise the data that is presented, as it is incomplete and does not show the full picture. At the end of December, the commissioners owned 102,000 acres of forest land. The Commissioners planted over 2.6m trees in 2019.”
A spokesperson for Highways England said: “We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and are one of the largest tree-planting organisations in the country. For example, last year we started a major programme of tree and shrub planting along two major roads in the south-west in a bid to connect a 105-mile corridor of wildlife habitat.”
Friends of the Earth compiled its findings by examining land registry data, geographic information system mapping, and the National Forest Inventory.
A MoD spokesperson said: “We are committed to making the Defence estate as sustainable as possible and have planted 1.3m trees in the last decade, with plans to plant a further 2m.
“The Defence estate is primarily used for training, which requires large areas of open land for troops and armoured vehicles to manoeuvre freely. We continue to identify areas where new woodland can be planted that support our military training needs.”