The woodlands and their extent in the UK reflect changes in land use and society over several thousand years. During that period the land, which was once largely clothed in woodland, was cleared of trees and used to satisfy the demands of our increasing population for timber, fuel and farmland. By the end of World War I, woodland cover was at an all time low of around 5%.
Today the figure has grown to 10% (2.5M ha); that is over twice the area present in 1900. Our position still compares unfavourably with other European countries however, or compared with the estimated 30% forest cover for the World as a whole. Thanks to an ongoing commitment to a steady programme of planting by successive governments and the enthusiasm of many organisations, landowners and foresters, tree cover is spreading. Current Government policy is to continue woodland expansion in the UK.
Britain is one of only a few countries that can boast a slow but steady expansion of forest area compared with the rapid disappearance elsewhere, particularly in the Tropics.
Around two-thirds of the UK’s woodland resource is privately owned – by individuals, family trusts, charities and companies. Typically woodlands owned by private and family interests are a part of mixed estates or are on farms. There are many thousands of small farm woodlands but not many ownerships with more than 1,000 ha of woodland.
On many woodland estates and some farms, management of woodlands for game is a valuable objective. Timber production is crucial in the larger family estates and company owned forests. A growing number of woods are managed specifically for recreation and conservation purposes by charitable trusts and private owners.
The remaining one-third of woodlands is publicly owned, the bulk of it managed by the Forestry Commission in mainland Britain and the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland (DANI). These “new” forests established in the 20th century are mainly on areas of low agricultural value, particularly in the uplands, using conifer species.
From its creation in 1919, for its first 35 years, the Forestry Commission’s main objective was to create new forests to build a strategic reserve of timber in case of need. That was achieved by mainly planting on open hill land of poor agricultural quality and generated much needed employment in those areas. Special villages were even constructed at places like Kielder to house the workers.