Horizon scanning the future
We are living in a time of immense change; environmentally, socially and economically. The next 50 years will bring huge changes to the UK's forests.
Our forests have enormous potential to address the challenges of the coming decades, but they need to be fit for the future. We are planting forests now that we expect to cope with the future climate. So we must be ready to address the critical threats forests face, as well as to harness opportunities.
Working with the University of Cambridge, we've produced valuable research to identify possible opportunities and challenges over the next 50 years for UK woodlands, and those who look after them.
The results are both concerning and exciting. But these are possibilities and not certainties, so we have a huge opportunity to make a difference. The next steps are ours to take.
What is a horizon scan?
Horizon scanning is a type of analysis that identifies emerging opportunities and challenges. It involves gathering a wide range of experts to brainstorm, discuss and prioritise issues that are likely to have significant impacts.
This horizon scan was instigated and funded by Forestry England to identify environmental, social, economic and political factors that may affect the use, development and management of woodland in the UK over the next 50 years. The analysis was led by Prof Bill Sutherland from the University of Cambridge, a pioneer in horizon scanning for the environmental sciences.
Why do we need it for forests?
Forests take decades to grow, so their management needs good foresight. Global challenges such as the climate and biodiversity crises will bring huge change that we need to adapt to. Forestry involves long-term cycles of management and investment, so risks and opportunities need to be detected as early as possible.
This horizon scan allows us to look ahead as we develop strategies to keep the nation’s forests thriving in our lifetime and far beyond. The 15 horizon scan issues presented here are a starting point to prompt debate and action. We hope that this stimulates a greater recognition of how our forests and the forestry sector may need to change to be fit for the future.
The top 15 issues for UK forests
- Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse
- Increased drought and flooding change the social costs and benefits of trees
- Forest management becomes more challenging due to changing seasonal working windows
- Protecting and enhancing soil microbial ecology becomes a higher priority
- Viruses and viroids emerge as pathogens of increasing importance for trees
- eDNA revolutionises our understanding of forest ecosystems
- Trees are at the heart of future urban planning
- The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) drives transparency and investment in nature-positive management
- Natural capital funding streams are greatly upscaled
- New technologies facilitate widespread adoption of smart silviculture
- New technologies improve worker health and safety
- New wood product markets stimulate more active forest management
- UK commercial forest resources may not match future value chains
- Unpredictable supply and demand dynamics in global wood product markets
- International commitments will spotlight ecosystem integrity and drive monitoring efforts
Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse
The large-scale effects of extreme weather events and the knock-on impacts from wind, fire and pests such as bark beetles could cause entire forest ecosystems to collapse. This would be an abrupt, long-lasting and widespread change with potentially devastating impacts on biodiversity and the goods and benefits nature provides for us. Significant forest dieback has already happened across large areas of Europe, and is a very real threat for UK forests.
Impacts would also cause unpredictable fluctuations in timber and potential for species extinctions. This is a fundamental issue for the future of UK forests, with wider environmental, social and economic impacts.
Increased drought and flooding change the social costs and benefits of trees
Climate change will increase severe flooding and drought events. Trees limit the impact of flooding, but in drier regions there will be an increase in water demand from trees. This competition for local water resources could conflict with human needs from houses, industry, and irrigation supply. Forestry policy and practice need to balance the impacts of different types of forest on water use along with the benefits of trees.
Forest management becomes more challenging due to changing seasonal working windows
The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events will limit the opportunities for forest management. For example, wetter winters will make forestry work more challenging, or even impossible, due to ground conditions, whereas summer heatwaves will cause health and safety issues for outdoor working. The sector must become much more flexible and adaptive to fluctuations in wood supply. Collaboration with other sectors will be key to finding solutions.
Protecting and enhancing soil microbial ecology becomes a higher priority
The health of soils underpins the health of entire ecosystems. New research will transform our understanding of the importance of soil in the coming years. Public awareness of soil and fungi is also growing, along with concern over the impact of forest operations, such as soil compaction or erosion. Change in policy and practice may follow to make sure that we appropriately look after soil health. Different ways to prepare ground for planting, or planting species that improve soil, may become more important.
Viruses and viroids emerge as pathogens of increasing importance for trees
There is an increase in the plant pathogens arriving from abroad, due to trade globalisation and climate change. Viruses and viroids (microorganisms that infect plants) are the largest group on the UK Plant Health Risk Register, compared to fungi, bacteria and invertebrate pests. However, very few viruses and viroids are known as pathogens of forest trees, possibly because they have been undetected or confused with symptoms from other pathogens. Therefore, their threat may have been overlooked and the sector unprepared for the significant economic and environmental risk.
eDNA revolutionises our understanding of forest ecosystems
The analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA: DNA from an organism that is released into the environment) is revolutionising how we monitor the ecology of forests. eDNA can be used to survey species and habitats previously understudied, for example fungi or soil. This could transform our understanding of the impacts of forest management, the biodiversity value of different forest types and how pests are detected. The widespread use of eDNA metabarcoding will bring an ecological data explosion that will require a similar expansion of effort in how these data are presented, interpreted and used.
Trees are at the heart of future urban planning
The benefits of trees and forests in and around urban settings are increasingly recognised. However, many urban centres currently have poor access to greenspace. There is likely to be a step-change in the scale at which trees are integrated into urban planning, and new forests will be created in urban peripheries as ‘forest lungs’. As the UK is one of the least nature-connected societies in Europe, this brings great opportunities to transform the ways that society relates to and values nature. It will also have implications for both the arboricultural and forestry sectors, which will need to work closely together.
The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) drives transparency and investment in nature-positive management
The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) is a groundbreaking initiative led by the private sector. It is creating a global framework for companies and investors to monitor and disclose their risks and impacts on nature, including throughout their supply chain. Reporting the impacts on biodiversity is likely to become mandatory for large companies and investors. It could mean biodiverse, nature-first forest management becomes more commercially viable.
Natural capital funding streams are greatly upscaled
The ‘natural capital’ approach places the state of the environment at the heart of policy and decision-making, by linking nature to our wealth and wellbeing. Forestry England estimates the nation’s forests deliver ecosystem services to society, such as carbon sequestration and recreation, worth almost £2 billion per year. Significant upscaling of natural capital ‘banks’ and trading platforms will facilitate investment in ecosystem services (the vital processes and benefits that nature supplies). This market stimulation could support woodland creation and better forest management. The challenge is to ensure payments support the creation of new benefits, not just existing ones, so standardisation and certification is important.
New technologies facilitate widespread adoption of smart silviculture
The shifting demands of climate and society mean managing forests is increasingly complex. Emerging technologies will become more important, for example remote sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. These technologies will support improved and more nuanced decision-making and smart silviculture, such as highly precise tree species matching to site conditions, more targeted responses to pests and disease, and selective felling to meet specific demands.
New technologies improve worker health and safety
The forestry sector has among the highest rates of workplace injury in Great Britain but technology is driving significant improvements. Harvesting by drone and remotely operated forwarders are reducing exposure to hazards, such as from falling trees. Extended reality training, already routinely used in aviation and medicine, can be used in training for harvesting machinery and chainsaw handling. Improvements to connectivity and GPS will improve speed of response to accidents or safety alerts. This combination of technology will revolutionise the workplace and improve health and safety for workers.
New wood product markets stimulate more active forest management
The role of timber and wood products to replace less sustainable, more carbon-intensive material such as steel, concrete and plastic is increasing. Engineered wood, clothing fibres and plastic substitutes are increasing the potential for using wood from a wider range of tree species, shapes and sizes. This could provide an incentive to bring smaller, less profitable woodlands into management, boosting both economic and wildlife value. Nevertheless, we must continue to monitor carefully to make sure harvesting of emerging markets is sustainable.
UK commercial forest resources may not match future value chains
Current markets for wood include construction, fencing, pallets and boards. But the timber we produce now may not meet future market needs. We must learn lessons from the past, where trees were planted to meet demands that were gone by the time of harvest, such as oaks for shipbuilding or poplars for matchsticks. As we strive to make our forests more resilient to environmental change, by increasing the diversity of tree species and management practices, there is a risk that the timber produced may not meet future requirements. Forest management must focus on providing a portfolio of wood products that can flexibly serve a range of possible future markets.
Unpredictable supply and demand dynamics in global wood product markets
The UK is dependent on imports, with 80% of our timber coming from abroad, much supplied by relatively few countries. There is risk that global market prices might increase sharply, or supply be interrupted. There is also increasing concern on the impact of ‘offshoring’ timber production, particularly to countries with less stringent sustainability standards. In parallel, our timber demand is unlikely to decrease. The UK forests sector must have increasing flexibility to adapt to changing markets or availability of types of timber.
International commitments will spotlight ecosystem integrity and drive monitoring efforts
The UK government agreed to the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) at the Kunming-Montreal COP15, which will bring new challenges for monitoring and reporting ecological condition. In particular, it is unclear how the newly proposed Ecosystem Integrity Index will be assessed and applied, and current practices and methods of data capture will need evaluating. Ecosystem integrity is not currently well understood by practitioners, nor included in policy, despite its importance in forest resilience and the delivery of ecosystem services. The GBF therefore has great potential to increase this understanding and integrate it directly into forest management.
Tew et al, A horizon scan of issues affecting UK forest management within 50 years, Forestry DOI:10.1093/forestry/cpad047