‘Majority’ of native woodland to be in good or recovering condition by 2030, vows DEFRA

The majority of England’s native woodland is to be brought into good or recovering condition by 2030, according to a new DEFRA policy statement, with campaigners saying it has “real potential” to support nature recovery if sufficiently resourced and implemented.

On Friday the government published an updated ‘Keepers of Time’ policy statement, which sets out new commitments to improve the state and extent of England’s native and ancient trees and woodlands.

The first version of the Keepers of Time statement was published in 2005, and updating it was promised in DEFRA’s England Tree Action Plan last year. It comes as the government has extended the consultation period for its legally binding environmental targets, which includes a goal to increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 17.5% of total land area in England by 2050.

READ MORE: ‘Unprecedented’ tree target ‘will require additional regulatory measures’, says evidence pack

Only 7% of native woodland is currently considered to be in good condition, according to the Woodland Trust, which has welcomed the new commitment to bring the majority of native woodland into good or recovering condition by 2030, adding that it deserved backing with “partnerships, resources and action to ensure its full implementation”.

“If the ambition of this policy is delivered.. it has real potential to help support nature recovery across England,” said a spokesperson.

The policy statement also introduces a new commitment to bring ancient woodland which has been historically converted to conifer plantations, also known as ‘Plantation on Ancient woodland sites’ (PAWs), into restoration by 2030. 

With about half of all ancient woodland having gone through the PAW process in the 20th century, The Woodland Trust has described this as an important goal.

Another commitment laid out in the statement is to ensure at least 75% of woodland sites of special scientific interest are in favourable condition by 2042, and also to maintain the existing resource of known ancient and veteran trees in England. However, due to lack of data, DEFRA acknowledges that the full extent of the country’s ancient woodland resource is likely to be much greater than recorded. The Woodland Trust has told ENDS that for this goal to be realised, new legal protection would need to be introduced.

During the passage of the Environment Act 2021 through Parliament, the government rejected a Lords amendment which sought to implement an “enhanced protection standard” for ancient woodland threatened by development. Instead, ministers promised to bring forward changes to the planning system.

Some of these commitments are reasserted in the Keepers of Time statement, including a review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to “make sure it is correctly implemented for ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees”. The statement also reiterates that local planning authorities will be required to consult the housing secretary before granting planning permission for developments affecting ancient woodland.

When DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow first aired the intention to make this a requirement last year, she clarified that this would not bind decisions under the Transport and Works Act 1992 on hybrid bills - that is to say, bills that support projects such as HS2.

According to current government figures, the total woodland cover in England is 1.3 million hectares, which accounts for approximately 10.1% of the total land area. Of this, DEFRA says that 914,000 hectares are identified as native woodland, equivalent to 70% of England’s woodland.

A Natural England spokesperson said that the statement “very much underpins our work in offering protection for irreplaceable habitats” and particularly welcomed the recognition of wood pasture and parkland as a form of ancient woodland as “another big step forward in our thinking on ancient woodland”.