According to a study, there is a risk of catastrophic ecosystem collapse in UK forests within the next 50 years.

Researchers have issued a warning that UK forests are at risk of a “catastrophic ecosystem collapse” in the next five decades due to various factors such as disease, severe weather, and wildfires. This could result in widespread tree mortality.

A group of 42 researchers, with consultation from 1,200 experts, conducted a study published in the journal Forestry. The lead author, Dr. Eleanor Tew, who is also the head of forest planning at Forestry England and a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, described the results as concerning and troubling.

Several of the potential dangers identified by scientists are currently impacting forests and wooded areas. A type of fungal infection known as ash dieback has caused the death of approximately 80% of ash trees in the UK. In the year 2021, winter storms destroyed roughly 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forest in Britain. Projections based on climate patterns indicate that storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods will likely increase in frequency and intensity.

“The problem comes when you get all of those things happening at the same time as multiple, interrelated threats,” said Tew. “That just overwhelms the forest, and you basically get trees dying and the forest ecosystem collapsing … that has massive landscape impacts, and significant impacts for society.”

Scorched moorland with smoke rising above it

There is still hope to prevent a disastrous decline in the UK’s forests. The current state of our ecosystem is not beyond repair. Tew stated that there is an opportunity to take action and strengthen the resilience of our forests. He sees this paper as a plea to act.

Possible solutions to combat tree pests and diseases include enhancing the variety of tree species in a forest, planting trees of varying ages, encouraging natural regrowth, and controlling deer populations. Individuals can assist in this effort by utilizing the Tree Alert tool to report any potential signs of pests or diseases in trees. Additionally, it is important for people to ensure their footwear is free of contaminants before entering a new woodland to prevent the spread of disease.

The long-term impacts of forest ecosystem collapse would include loss of timber, carbon sequestration, poorer air quality, water retention and human enjoyment. In some parts of Europe, there has already been ecosystem collapse within forests: storms, drought and bark beetle outbreaks in Germany have destroyed the equivalent of 250,000 football fields of forest.

This issue is frequently exacerbated by management tactics that result in forests dominated by a single type and age of tree, increasing their susceptibility to harm.

Felled trees in a forest

According to Tew, the forestry sector must plan ahead because it takes an average of 60 years for a conifer to grow to maturity in a plantation, and up to 150 years for a broadleaf. Tew stated, “Forestry has always been focused on long-term planning, and we are currently facing significant changes.”

By 2025, the government aims to increase the annual forestation by 30,000 hectares, which is twice the current rate. Among European countries, the UK has the lowest forest coverage at only 13%. A recent report by the Woodland Trust revealed that a mere 7% of the UK’s native woodlands are in a healthy state.

The paper identifies additional difficulties that forests are currently facing, such as the competition for water between trees and human uses, like residential and agricultural needs. This issue is expected to worsen as droughts and floods become more prevalent. Managing forests is also predicted to become more challenging as winters become wetter and summers become hotter.

The study emphasized the importance of safeguarding soil and being prepared for the effects of tree viruses.

Dr. Elena Cantarello, a researcher from Bournemouth University who was not part of the study, stated that her recent research in south-west England has yielded similar results. She also mentioned that the paper by Tew, which identified catastrophic collapse of forest ecosystems as the top-ranked issue, aligns with the findings from the majority of variables studied concerning ecosystem services and biodiversity.

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