The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has worked fast and in difficult circumstances to launch new tree-planting schemes, but did not give enough consideration to whether its planting target is realistic, and looks set to fall short of what it set out to achieve in 2021-22. It will need to overcome significant challenges if it is to increase tree-planting to the levels required for government’s Net Zero strategy.

Nature-based solutions, including woodland creation and management, form part of the government’s Net Zero strategy. Defra aims to achieve at least 7,500 hectares of annual tree-planting by March 2025 to be on the trajectory required by the Net Zero strategy. To achieve this target, Defra has established the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme (the Programme).

When setting the 7,500 hectare per year target, Defra did not sufficiently consider whether it is realistic. Defra told the NAO that it determined it was realistic based on available evidence, including historic planting rates and the availability of land, but it did not undertake a detailed assessment of this evidence. At no point in the last 50 years has the annual rate of tree-planting in England reached 7,500 hectares and it has only risen above 6,000 hectares in three of the last 50 years. As well as achieving its headline targets, Defra also has a wide range of environmental, social and economic objectives, which add to the complexity of increasing tree-planting rates quickly.

Defra and the Forestry Commission have worked fast and in difficult circumstances to launch the Programme’s schemes in time for the 2021-22 planting season, despite staff shortages and challenging working conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has launched the Programme with some of its key components still in development. This includes establishing a robust framework for monitoring and evaluating the Programme, limiting the lessons Defra can draw from the Programme’s early stages. Defra did not consider the potential benefits of taking more time to develop its schemes before launch.

Defra forecasts that fewer trees will be planted through the Programme in 2021-22 than the amount needed to be on a trajectory towards its 2025 target. In January 2022, Defra estimated that between 1,400 and 1,900 hectares of new trees would be planted in 2021-22 as part of the Programme. To be on a trajectory towards 7,500 hectares per year in 2024-25, its ambition was to plant 2,577 hectares in 2021-22.

Some of the challenges that Defra and its partners will need to manage if they are to achieve the Programme’s tree-planting target include:

  • Private landowners being discouraged from planting trees due to uncertainty about future government funding.
  • The need to secure stronger support from other government departments so that they plant more trees on the land they manage.
  • Risks to the availability of seeds and saplings due to tree nurseries either closing or reducing production levels.
  • A shortfall in the staff needed to deliver the Programme, including sufficient experts such as qualified foresters.

Defra expects tree-planting rates to continue to grow after 2025, but there are few details about the government’s longer-term approach to tree-planting. This means Defra lacks a clear picture of what the Programme needs to achieve in areas such as increasing the supply of seeds and saplings and increasing the capacity of the forestry sector, that will be key to long-term expansion of tree-planting.

After 2024-25, government will mainly fund tree-planting through the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). However, uncertainty over the design of ELM means Defra has been unable to develop detailed plans for this transition. Once within ELM, tree-planting will be competing for funding with a wide range of other government environmental priorities, and farmers will be able to choose between tree-planting and other environmental activities that may be more attractive to them or better suited to their business.

The NAO recommends that Defra and the Forestry Commission should urgently establish what is required for the transition of tree-planting into ELM. They should also ensure that the monitoring and evaluation framework they are developing for the Programme will be able to robustly measure progress against all its targets.

“Defra has done well to launch new schemes to support landowners to plant trees. Yet despite its efforts, it is not expecting to achieve the amount of new tree-planting in 2021-22 that it set out to, and should have done more to make sure its targets were realistic.

“There are significant challenges Defra will need to address if it is to achieve its ambitious targets and support government’s wider Net Zero agenda. These include sustaining the interest of landowners, ensuring there are sufficient skills on the ground and securing the active support of other parts of government.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

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Planting Trees in England

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