A Guide to the UK's Woodlands

What is a woodland?

While we all intuitively know what a woodland “feels like”, tracking the protection and development of forests across large geographies over long timescales requires a more specific, quantitative definition. Within the UK a woodland is defined as

🌲 A minimum area of 0.5 hectares under stands of trees with, or with the potential to achieve, tree crown cover of more than 20% of the ground

Unlike international definitions, which set a minimum mature height of species at 5m, UK woodlands have no minimum height requirements. This means that certain areas of woodland will have a mix between smaller shrub species and larger trees.

What percentage of the UK is woodland?

As of the last measurement in March 2022 13% of the UK total land area is woodland. This totals 3.24 million hectares and represents a 2.4% increase since 2015. Since any area above 0.5 hectares is considered woodland you may be surprised at how close your local woodland - next time you’re strolling through Piccadilly in Central London take a moment to visit St James’ Square - 0.9 hectares of broadleaf woodland awaits.

A satellite image showing woodland cover throughout London

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What types of woodlands are there in the UK?

The UK is home to 5 types of woodland, each with their own unique characteristics and biodiversity. How many have you visited?

  • Ancient woodland - Existing for at least 400+ years, ancient woodlands are a unique and incredibly rare habitat covering just 2.5% of the UK’s land. The rich ecosystem has developed over hundreds of years, leading to unique communities of creatures - from the evocatively named “Lemon Slug” to the delicate Guelder Rose.
  • Broad-leaved woodland - Broad-leaved woodlands are the dominant habitat across the majority of the UK and more generally temperature Europe. As the name suggests they are populated with broad leaf tree species, such as Oak and Beech.
  • Wet woodland - Wet woodland is found throughout the UK lining rivers, streams and peaty bogs. The exact complexion of a wet woodland depends heavily on the underlying soil type and propensity for rain, with alder and willow being found alongside river banks while Alder-carr woodlands thrive in waterlogged soils.
  • Caledonian forest - As we move North we enter the realm of the Caledonian forest, a truly spectacular woodland dominated by tall pines and quintessentially Scottish wildlife - from the Scottish wildcat to the intimidating wild boar.
  • Secondary woodland - When previously cleared land is reforested we end up with Secondary Woodland. This is typically species poor compared to well established landscapes, but still contributes key ecosystem services from carbon sequestration to reducing erosion.

Where are these woodlands found?

There are over half a million individual woodland plots found throughout the UK, ranging from half hectares tucked into urban pockets all the way through to the 1,455 hectare Wyre forest (UK’s largest woodland).

Perhaps the most surprising are the woodlands that sit adjacent to the very heart of the UK’s largest cities - such as Grosvenor square.

To see which woodlands are near you explore this open database

Why are woodlands so important?

After the last Ice Age in Britain, around 12,000 years ago, tree species begun to colonise the UK. The early pioneers were Birch and Pine, and soon woodland came to dominate the British landscape - setting the scene for what has become one of our most important habitats.

The benefits, or “ecosystem services” provided by woodlands are diverse and highly impactful:

🌤️ Woodlands purify our air

The Office of National Statistics calculated that the removal of air pollution by Woodlands creates nearly £1bn worth of healthcare savings annually. Trees remove both gaseous pollutants, such as SO2, NO2, CO, and ozone, as well as reducing particulate pollutants.

🌱 Woodlands remove carbon from the atmosphere

One of the most significant impacts of woodlands is the vast amount of carbon they remove from our atmosphere. Research calculated that in 2017 woodland removed 18.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equating to a value of £1.2 billion. This represents 4% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

🐿️ Woodlands provide rich habitats

The sheer range of biodiversity supported by our native woodlands is astonishing. Research conducted by the Hutton institute discovered that just our oak trees support over 2300 unique species! From fungi and insects through to large mammals, woodlands underpin the UK’s diversity.

🟤 Woodlands protect our soils

Perhaps more so than any other habitat, woodlands protect the rich underlayer of soil - reducing erosion and increasing fertility. Given that it takes nearly 1000 years to produce just 3cm of top soil, conserving this finite resource is key - especially when we consider that 94% of our food comes from the soil. Woodlands bind the soil together and shelter it from strong wind and rain. Furthermore, organic debris from woodlands actively generates new soil and supports the biodiversity needed to process it.

🥗 Woodlands support food production

Following on from this, woodlands are key to healthy agricultural systems. Whether directly integrated, such as in innovative agro-forestry systems, or providing external support from adjacent plots - woodlands drive up productivity. The mechanisms are wide and varied, from sheltering crops against bad weather to giving livestock patches of shade to prevent overheating.

🤗 Woodlands reduce stress

Finally, humans are not immune to the protective elements of woodlands. Physically, proximity to woodlands helps inspire people to exercise in a rich and clean environment. Mentally, there is a strong link between the time spent in woodlands and stress reduction. Plus the resident Alo Mundus pup’s love woodlands too.

What biodiversity is found within UK woodlands?

Given the wide diversity of woodland found throughout the UK, and the importance of active management, the type of biodiversity found in our forested areas is extremely varied. For this introductory guide we will provide a high level overview, starting from the ground up.

Woodland - Under the soil

Some of the most important species within a woodland are hidden below the soil for most of their life. Fungi are an incredibly fascinating branch of life - distinct from animals and plants and with truly unique characteristics (see how one fungi was used to guard against forgeries). Our woodlands support a broad spectrum of fungi species - with highlights including the legally protected Bearded Tooth fungus that can boost memory to the Common Birds Nest fungus that has an uncanny resemblance to an egg filled nest. If you have never been on a fungus walk, we would highly recommend it - the diversity is astonishing. If you are investing in woodland projects as a business, we can help organise an experiential day for your staff.

The visually striking "Tiered Tooth Fungus".

Woodland - Ground Level

As we hit the ground layer we enter a unique world, where decaying wood and scrub creates a complex, humid environment populated by otherworldly insects and plants. Mosses, Ivy and Lichen will compete together and spectacular insects, such as the Large Marsh Grasshopper, will recycle organic material.

A beautiful and rare Large Marsh Grasshopper

Woodland - Field Layer

Above the ground layer we reach the field layer, where gaps in the canopy allow ferns and grasses to thrive. Ferns are an ancient plant that first existed over 300m years ago, often creating a jurassic like feel. Many ferns, like the Hart’s Tongue Fern, are reliable indicators of ancient woodlands.

Ferns growing in a mixed UK woodland

Woodland - Understory

Above the field level level we enter the dense understory - populated by shurbs such as Hazel, Hawthorne and Wild Cherry. Typically this is the most species diverse region of a woodland as it provides food, cover, nesting sites, and other key services for animals.

Wild Cherry - A common inhabitant of the undergrowth

Woodland - Canopy

Finally, as we reach the canopy of the woodland we are greeted with a visually spectacular ecosystem populated with keystone species such as birds of prey. Interlinking branches and leaves block the light from reaching the ground and provide a highway for some of our most recognisable creatures - such as the red squirrel who have inhabited our isles for 10,000 years.

Interlinking branches forming the canopy

Who owns UK woodlands?

73% of the UK woodlands are privately owned and the remainder is publically owned by the forest commission. Commercially run plantations are used to generate timber, while a number of companies keep woodlands as an investment. A small percentage of woodlands are owned by Local Authorities, particularly in urban areas.

How can I support the UK's woodlands?

Both businesses and citizens have a hugely important role to play in determining the future of our precious woodlands. You've already made a great start in creating a positive future by simply taking the time to learn more about our woodlands, and the next stage is to get out there and visit them! We would recommend downloading our Greenprints guide to help you find your local woodlands (see above for the link).

Finally, if you can, then providing funding to the organisations curating our woodlands can make a huge difference. Alo Mundus makes this process easy and if you are a business we can even coordinate engagement days for your staff - from Fungi walks to coppicing their first tree. Simply discover projects by clicking the link below.

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