British woodland changing as landowners shun traditional trees for exotic varieties to beat pests

Sarah Knapton
Oak trees are being replaced with Eucalyptus and Redwood  - Getty Images Fee

British woodland is changing with landowners shunning traditional trees for exotic varieties to future-proof forests against climate change, pests and disease, research has found.

A report by The Royal Forestry Society (BFS) has found that half its members were not planting more species than they were five years ago, and were picking varieties like Eucalyptus and Redwoods, which are more common in Australia and the US.

Landowners were also now choosing fast growing native trees such as wild cherry as well as less common British varieties such as Field Maple, Hornbeam and Lime alongside ‘familiar’ non natives such as Sweet Chestnuts and Black Walnut.

Britain’s failing ash and oak woodlands, which have been hit by pests and disease over the last decade, are also being replaced with Sycamore, Aspens and Ceders, according to the BFS study.

However, despite concerns that Britain's traditional woodland is vanishing, experts said it was helpful to diversify and plant a wide range of species to limit the damage in the event of new problems.

Eucalyptus could replace Oak in British woods Credit: Florapix / Alamy Stock Photo

Simon Lloyd, BFS Chief Executive, said: “The RFS believes that the biggest threat to traditional forests is to do nothing because we are reluctant to stray from native species – often with no good reason.

“Choosing oak, for instance, from a more southerly provenance (Assisted Migration) will develop a gene pool that will enhance the current gene pool without changing the fundamental look of a forest.  People may think this is counterintuitive and that our forests are wholly native, but they are already the result of generations of importation and adaptation of species from overseas.

“Today’s traditional forest has already seen changes, with species such as Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut not only well established and adding to our biodiversity but also providing home grown timber.

“Climate change is likely to mean that new pests and diseases will emerge which may also arrive independently. By increasing the range of tree species we will be increasing the changes of significant trees surviving to maintain forest/woodland cover.”

The BFS also warned it was critical that landowners maintained good biosecurity when importing plants to make sure they were not bringing disease into the country.

“Ash Dieback came in on imported stock but was also blown in from continental Europe,” added Mr Lloyd.

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do this carefully. There are strict import restrictions and checks on imported species and we urge all woodland owners and managers to buy from reputable tree nurseries and to ask about the provenance of any stock they buy.”