According to a recent study, the United Kingdom’s forests are at risk of experiencing a devastating ecosystem failure within the next 50 years.
Scientists have issued a warning that within the next five decades, forests in the UK are at risk of experiencing a serious decline in their ecosystems due to various factors such as disease, severe weather, and wildfires. This could result in a significant loss of trees.
A group of 42 researchers, with input from 1,200 experts, conducted a study published in the journal Forestry. Dr. Eleanor Tew, head of forest planning at Forestry England and visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, described the results as concerning and concerning.
Researchers have identified numerous threats that are currently impacting forests and woodlands. For example, the fungal infection ash dieback has resulted in the death of up to 80% of ash trees in the UK. Additionally, approximately 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forest in Britain were destroyed by winter storms in 2021. Climate projections suggest that these types of natural disasters, such as storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods, will continue to occur more frequently and with greater intensity.
“When multiple, interconnected threats occur simultaneously, it becomes a problem,” stated Tew. “This situation can overwhelm the forest, resulting in dying trees and a collapsed ecosystem. This has significant impacts on both the landscape and society.”
The UK’s forests are not currently experiencing a catastrophic collapse, and it is not an inevitable outcome. According to Tew, there is still time to prevent this from happening and there are actions we can take to make the forests more resilient. This paper serves as a call to take action.
Some possible solutions for maintaining a healthy woodland include introducing a variety of tree species, planting trees of different ages, encouraging natural regrowth, and managing deer populations. Individuals can also contribute by utilizing the Tree Alert platform to report any suspected tree pests or diseases. Tew also suggests ensuring that footwear is clean before entering a new woodland to prevent the spread of disease.
The potential effects of a forest ecosystem collapse would be significant, including reduced timber supply, decreased carbon storage, decreased air quality, decreased water retention, and decreased human enjoyment. In certain regions of Europe, there have already been instances of ecosystem collapse within forests due to storms, drought, and bark beetle outbreaks. These events have resulted in the destruction of approximately 250,000 football fields worth of forest in Germany alone.
This problem is frequently exacerbated by management tactics that result in forests dominated by a single species and age of tree, increasing their susceptibility.
According to Tew, the forestry sector must make future plans. It can take up to 60 years for a typical conifer in a plantation to reach maturity, while a broadleaf may take up to 150 years. Tew stated, “Forestry has always been focused on long-term planning, and we are currently experiencing significant changes.”
The government’s goal is to increase forest coverage by 30,000 hectares annually by 2025, which is twice the current rate. Compared to other European countries, the UK has one of the lowest percentages of forest coverage at 13%. According to the Woodland Trust’s 2021 report, only 7% of the UK’s native woodland is in good condition.
The paper also discusses other issues that forests are currently facing, such as the competition for water resources between trees and human needs for residential and agricultural use. This is especially critical as droughts and floods become more common. Additionally, the management of forests is expected to become more challenging due to the combination of wetter winters and hotter summers.
According to the study, safeguarding soil and preparing for the effects of tree viruses are both important considerations.
According to Dr. Elena Cantarello of Bournemouth University, who was not part of the research team, her recent study in south-west England yielded similar findings. She stated that the potential collapse of forest ecosystems, identified as the top concern in Tew’s paper, was also observed in the majority of the ecosystem services and biodiversity measures analyzed in her study.
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