According to researchers, the forests in the UK are at risk of experiencing a “catastrophic ecosystem collapse” in the next 50 years due to a combination of factors such as disease, severe weather, and wildfires. This could lead to significant tree mortality.
A group of 42 researchers, including lead author Dr. Eleanor Tew from Forestry England and the University of Cambridge, published a study in the journal Forestry. They consulted 1,200 experts and found the results to be concerning and concerning.
Researchers have identified several threats that are currently impacting forests and woodlands. For example, the fungal disease known as ash dieback has resulted in the death of up to 80% of the UK’s ash trees. Additionally, winter storms in 2021 caused significant damage, destroying approximately 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forest in Britain. Climate predictions indicate that these extreme weather events, such as storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods, are expected to occur more frequently and with greater intensity in the future.
According to Tew, the issue arises when multiple threats occur simultaneously and are interconnected. This can overload the forest, causing trees to die and the entire ecosystem to collapse. The consequences of this can have a major impact on the landscape and society as a whole.
It is not certain that the ecosystem in the UK’s forests will collapse catastrophically, and it has not yet happened. According to Tew, there is still time to make a positive impact and increase the resilience of our forests. He referred to the paper as a plea for action.
Some possible solutions to address the issue include: planting a variety of tree species in a forest, introducing trees of different ages, encouraging natural regrowth, and managing deer populations. To aid in this effort, individuals can utilize the Tree Alert tool online to report any potential tree pests or diseases. Additionally, it is advised by Tew to ensure that one’s boots are clean before entering a new woodland in order to prevent the spread of disease.
The lasting consequences of a collapse in forest ecosystems would result in the depletion of timber, carbon storage, reduced air quality, water retention, and human enjoyment. In certain regions of Europe, there has already been a collapse of ecosystems within forests, such as severe weather, drought, and infestations of bark beetles in Germany, which have decimated an area equivalent to 250,000 football fields of forest.
This is often exacerbated by the tactics employed by management, which result in forests consisting of a single species and age of tree, increasing their susceptibility.
According to Tew, the forestry sector must make preparations ahead of time. It can take up to 60 years for a typical conifer to fully mature in a plantation, while a broadleaf may take up to 150 years. Tew stated, “Forestry has always involved long-term planning, and we are currently facing significant changes.”
The government aims to increase annual forestation to 30,000 hectares by 2025, which is twice the current rate. The UK has one of the lowest percentages of forest coverage in Europe at 13%. According to a 2021 study by the Woodland Trust, only 7% of the UK’s native woodlands are in a healthy state.
The paper also mentions additional obstacles that forests are currently facing. These include conflicts arising between the water supply for trees and the water needed for human households and agricultural land, especially as extreme weather events such as droughts and floods become more common. The management of forests is expected to become more difficult as winters become wetter and summers become hotter.
According to the study, safeguarding the soil and anticipating the effects of tree viruses are both important tasks.
According to Dr Elena Cantarello from Bournemouth University, who was not a part of the research, her recent findings in the south-west region of England have yielded similar results. She also noted that the study by Tew ranks catastrophic collapse of forest ecosystems as the most pressing issue, which aligns with the majority of the variables related to ecosystem services and biodiversity that were examined in her own research.
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