Tree planting targets could risk bumblebee habitats

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust warns about the dangers for nature’s recovery if we get mass tree planting and woodland creation wrong.

Photo by Rolf Schmidbauer on Unsplash

The UK has ambitious legally binding targets to significantly increase tree cover across the country as part of efforts to reach net zero and recover nature. Under the Environment Act (2021), the government has set a legally binding target to increase woodland coverage in England to 16.5% (current coverage is 10%) by 2052, equivalent to approximately 250,000 hectares. Similar tree planting ambitions exist for Scotland (18,000 hectares per year by 2025), Wales (43,000 hectares by 2030), and Northern Ireland (9,000 hectares by 2030).

The right kind of woodlands can be of great benefit to bumblebees, providing essential food and shelter, but if trees take the place of our last remaining good quality open habitats, like flower-rich grasslands, pollinator populations will suffer.

Britain’s grasslands are estimated to store 2 billion tonnes of carbon within their soils and can be some of our most nature-rich habitats, yet there are no equivalent targets to restore them. Species rich grasslands are some of our most biodiverse habitats, containing more than 20% of UK plant species and up to 40 plants per m2, supporting a multitude of pollinating insects and other wildlife. Yet they now cover less than 1% of the UK.

Grasslands are undervalued for their role in tackling the climate and nature crises, and the Trust is advocating for more investment in grasslands, including the development of appropriate safeguards to prevent them from being inappropriately planted on.

Darryl Cox, Senior Science and Policy Officer at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said, “Expanding tree cover across the UK is an essential part of how we tackle climate change and help nature to recover, but it’s important we approach any large-scale land use change with caution. We’re concerned that open-flowery habitats, which bumblebees and other pollinators rely on, are going to be planted on in the name of carbon sequestration, despite being useful carbon stores in their own right. We’ve already seen losses of more than 97% of flower-rich grassland areas over the last hundred years, resulting in widespread declines in wild plants and pollinators. We can’t afford to lose any more. We’re asking governments to value the role these habitats can play by including them in the overall strategy to tackle climate change.”

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has three key recommendations:

  • Be strategic about where habitats are restored. This requires rigorous assessments and safeguards to protect important habitats like flower-rich grasslands from being planted on, and fair incentives to ensure we restore the diversity of habitats that nature depends on. Greenbelts and urban areas offer opportunities for sensible woodland expansion and creation that benefit people too.
  • Where tree cover is increased, natural regeneration should be prioritised to maximise the benefit for nature, using native species to expand woodlands and hedgerows. The development of resources, advice and incentives for land managers and investors would help ensure our wooded habitats benefit nature, especially bumblebees and other conservation-priority species.
  • Unlock the climate mitigating potential of other habitats like species-rich grasslands. Recognising their value and investing in them in the same ways we do for trees and peat is essential to tackling the climate and nature crises we face.

The full, referenced Bumblebee Conservation Trust position statement on Tree Planting and Woodland Creation can be found here.