‘Unrealistic’ tree-planting target delayed by funding fears

This year’s tree planting target is set to be missed by Defra after private landowners shunned the schemes amid fears over funding, according to a National Audit Office report.

An ‘ambitious’ plan to plant at least 7,500 hectares of new trees in England each year by March 2025 relies on farmers’ participation, but is derailed by uncertainty over how much they will be paid for planting on their land.

Between 1,400 and 1,900 hectares of new trees are expected to be planted in 2021-22 under the scheme, according to the government’s own estimates, less than the 2,577 hectares it needed to be on track for its conservation targets. 2025.

Farmers and landowners have been pushed back from taking part in the scheme due to a lack of certainty about the rollout of new environmental payments to replace EU farm subsidies.

The diagram lacks clarity

The UK is considering replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy with funds that reward farmers for looking after their land in a more environmentally friendly way, including planting trees, but program details are yet to be finalized.

Currently farmers are paid on average around £8,500 per hectare to plant trees, but these payments will be replaced from 2025 by Environmental Land Management schemes, which will cover tree planting as well as other practices environmentally friendly such as the creation of wetlands and wildflower meadows. .

This means that landowners do not know how much money they will get for planting trees in the future compared to using the land for other purposes, such as agriculture or housing development. .

Landowners are “deterred from committing land for tree planting due to uncertainty over what priority the government will give to tree planting over its other priorities,” the report warned. NAO.

This “deters land managers from planting now, as they expect what they perceive to be a more generous supply to come in years to come”.

The government also faces a “serious challenge in regaining the trust of farmers it has lost due to a long history of mismanagement of past agricultural subsidy schemes”, the report adds.

Unrealistic goals

Ministers also failed to give enough thought to whether the target, which is part of the government’s plan to reach net zero by 2050, was “achievable”, he said.

Over the past 50 years, tree planting rates have never reached the target of 7,500 hectares per year and have only reached the level of 6,000 hectares per year for three years.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Defra has done well to launch new programs to help landowners plant trees.

“Yet, despite his best efforts, he does not expect to achieve the number of new tree plantings in 2021-22 that he had set for himself, and should have done more to ensure his targets were realistic.

“There are significant challenges Defra will need to address if it is to achieve its ambitious goals and support the government’s broader net zero agenda.

“This includes supporting the interest of landowners, ensuring there is enough expertise on the ground and getting active support from other parts of government.”

MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Defra delivered its new tree planting programs quickly, but that meant the program was half-baked.

“Working at a pace meant some of the basics weren’t mastered. Defra kept questioning whether its tree planting targets were realistic and failed to find a way to properly measure its own performance.

“Fixing this afterwards is akin to fixing the steering wheel of your car when you drive it out of the showroom – it’s just harder.”

George Eustice, Environment Secretary, said: “The challenge of climate change requires ambitious goals and big ambition. The NAO report acknowledges that we have worked at a steady pace under difficult circumstances to meet this challenge, but we are under no illusions that there is more. That is why we will triple the number of trees planted with here the end of this Parliament, backed by over £500m.

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