Landowners will be paid thousands of pounds in bonuses for creating new woodlands that boost wildlife, increase public access and reduce flooding, under a new £16m scheme for England announced on Wednesday.
The Forestry Commission plan will for the first time allow payments for natural regeneration, where wind-blown seeds colonise land. This can be the best way to recreate native woodlands and some landowners have complained that past grants only allowed tree planting. Support for planting trees along rivers to improve waterside habitats will also be offered for the first time.
The government announced the biggest shake-up of farming policy for 50 years in November, enabled by Brexit. It said £1.6bn of annual subsidies would be redirected from simply rewarding land ownership or rental to measures that help tackle the climate and wildlife crises, but it did not set out the level of such payments.
The new scheme will cover all the costs of saplings and planting and pay bonuses of up to £2,800 a hectare for woodland that helps wildlife recover, £1,600/ha for riverside trees, £2,200/ha for woodland with long-term public access and £500/ha for cutting flood risk by slowing water flow. Landowners can claim multiple benefits if their project ticks multiple boxes.
The £16m fund will cover the first year of the scheme and the government has pledged £500m in future funding for trees and woodlands. It said a significant majority of new trees will be native species rather than conifer plantations. There is not a specific amount of funding for natural regeneration, with the government saying the money would be awarded competitively based on the environmental and social benefits of a project.
“From planting a small one-hectare block, a strip of trees along rivers to reduce flood risk, to large mixed woodlands, this improved grant gives everyone the opportunity to see woodland creation as a financially and environmentally rewarding option,” said Sir William Worsley, the chair of the Forestry Commission. “This will help with our journey to reach net zero by 2050.”
Guy Shrubsole from Rewilding Britain said: “At last the government has seen the wood for the trees and will be funding farmers and landowners to allow the natural regeneration of tree saplings. Whilst tree planting has its place, allowing trees to re-seed is often a much better way to create natural, species-rich scrub and woodland habitats.”
“But the devil will be in the detail,” he added. “If the Forestry Commission restricts public funding for natural regeneration to only a short distance from a seed source, as has been rumoured, that will artificially constrain what nature can do.”
Stuart Roberts, the deputy president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said new trees were part of the NFU’s net zero plan and welcomed the flexibility of the new scheme, which he said must work alongside productive farming.
Mark Bridgeman, the president of the Country Land & Business Association, said the payments were significantly better than before and provided much-needed impetus to tree planting in England.
The government had already pledged to increase tree planting to 30,000 hectares a year across the UK by 2025, in line with the recommendation from its advisers, the Committee on Climate Change. “Our ambition is not just to treble tree planting rates by  but to create diverse treescapes across the country which benefit wildlife, the environment and people,” the environment secretary, George Eustice, said on Wednesday.
The new grants will cover capital costs for tree planting up to £8,500/ha, plus annual maintenance payments of £200/ha for 10 years. If the average funding including bonuses from the new scheme is £9,000/ha, it will support about 1,750 hectares of new woodland in its first year.
In 2019-2020, 2,300 hectares of new woodlands were created in England, 90% of which were native species. Forestry is a devolved matter and 11,000 hectares were planted in 2019-20 in Scotland, where two-thirds were conifer plantations.
The existing countryside stewardship scheme provides some funding for woodlands that increase biodiversity or help tackle the climate crisis, but it only covers 80% of capital costs and does not include the bonuses. The government was unable to say how much funding in total is given annually for tree planting.
Andrew Allen, from the Woodland Trust, said it would be watching to ensure the right trees are delivered in the right places: “We need more woods creating habitats for nature, soaking up carbon, combating flooding and much else. For the first time there’s now funding that combines these benefits. [But] the government needs to set out how it will ensure the new money delivers high-quality, biodiversity-friendly, native woodland” and not conifer plantations.