Planting of coniferous forests was one of the major changes in British land use in the 20th century.

Pole stage conifers
© J. Jackson

Since the Second World War, the area of coniferous high forest has risen more than threefold. The shift towards conifers was particularly rapid between 1947 and 1996 when more than half a million hectares were planted.

One day, and in the not too distant future, 20% or perhaps more of Britain will be covered with forest. At least 14% of that will be “new” in the sense that it will have been planted since 1919.

The work of foresters during the past 80 years has added huge plantations to the British landscape, often in areas where few trees grew before. That change has resulted in the loss of the former habitat but the creation of new ones. The value of afforested areas for wildlife has often been underestimated.

Particularly in their early stages, plantations change over quite a short space of ecological time. The wildlife which is present at the planting or restocking stage in a commercial plantation is different from that there as the trees grow up and the canopy closes and again differs from that in the maturing plantations.

A number of once rare species of birds have made a comeback on the back of conifer plantations. Those include the common crossbill, the goshawk, the firecrest, siskins and redpolls. These have all benefited from afforestation.

Other plantations may be mono-cultures of poplars, osiers, cricket bat willows or willows for biomass

More: See forest cycles and forests & wildlife