John Healey, Professor of Forest Sciences at Bangor University, is among a team of experts from across Europe who have produced a list of 15 over-looked and emerging issues likely to have a significant impact on UK forests over the next 50 years.
Published in the journal, Forestry, this is the first ‘horizon scanning’ exercise for UK forests. This method identifies relatively unknown threats, opportunities, and new trends. The aim is to help researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and society in general, be better prepared for the future and address threats before they become critical.
This expert horizon scan identified the key issues that we must address to ensure that the UK and Wales’ woodlands continue to deliver the range of benefits on which we depend.
There are many challenges to overcome to ensure that our woodlands not only provide crucial habitat for biodiversity conservation, and environments that are invaluable for human wellbeing, but also continue to produce wood as a vital renewable material that has a key role to play in achieving net zero emissions to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.
Bangor University’s input was key for identifying the way forward to ensure that woodlands do sustain future supply of the most important forest products.
Dr Eleanor Tew, visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Head of Forest Planning at Forestry England said,
“The next 50 years will bring huge changes to UK forests: the threats they face, the way that we manage them, and the benefits they deliver to society.”
Professor Healey was one of a panel of 42 experts, representing a range of professions, organisations, and geographies, who reached out to their networks to seek over-looked and emerging issues that were likely to affect UK forests over the next half century. The resulting 180-item longlist was whittled down to a shortlist of 30 issues. Finally, the panellists identified the top 15 issues they believed were likely to have the greatest impact on UK forests in the next 50 years.
‘Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ was the most highly ranked issue, when scored individually by the expert panel, with 64% of experts making it their top issue and 88% ranking it within their top three. ‘Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ refers to multiple interrelated hazards that have a cascading effect on forests, leading to their total or partial collapse. This has already been witnessed in continental Europe and North America.
Eleanor Tew said,
“We hope the results from this horizon scanning exercise serve as an urgent call to action to build on, and dramatically upscale, action to increase forest resilience.”
Another issue identified was that droughts caused by climate change may lead to competition for water resources between forests and society. On the other hand, forests may help to mitigate the impact of floods caused by climate change.
Tree viral diseases also emerged as an important issue. In the UK, pests and pathogens are increasing due to globalisation and climate change, with viruses and viroids (RNA molecules) being the largest group on the UK Plant Health Risk Register. However, little is known about how viral diseases affect forest tree species and indeed the wider ecosystem.
Climate change is also predicted to have a major impact on forest management, with extreme weather leading to smaller windows of time when forestry operations can be carried out. Experts warn that the seasons for carrying out work such as harvesting and thinning are getting narrower as we see wetter winters and scorching summers.
Not all emerging issues are threats, however – some are new opportunities. For example, trees will be at the heart of future urban planning. ‘Forest lungs’ are likely to be created due to an increased understanding of the benefits of trees for society. Experts say there will likely be a greater blurring of boundaries between urban and rural areas, with an increase in green infrastructure and connectivity.
International commitments around nature are also likely to have repercussions at the local level. For example, the mandatory reporting of companies’ supply chain impacts on nature, such as through the new framework being developed by the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), could create additional incentives for nature-friendly forest management.
Eleanor Tew concluded,
“These results are both concerning and exciting. However, we should be optimistic, remembering that these are possibilities and not certainties. Crucially, we have time to act ‒ by responding to the threats and embracing the opportunities, future generations can have resilient forests with all the benefits they offer.”
Professor Bill Sutherland, a pioneer of horizon scanning from the University of Cambridge said,
“We are already seeing dramatic events in Europe’s forests whether fires, disease or bark beetles, whilst the importance of trees is increasingly recognised. Horizon scanning to identify future issues is key, especially as trees planted now will face very different circumstances as they mature in scores of years.”
This research was funded by Forestry England, part of the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission are bringing the sector together in 2024 to look at next steps.