EVEN before Covid lockdowns gave us a new appreciation of our neighbouring parks and woodland, love of forests was on the rise.
A 2019 study suggested that 95 per cent of the UK agreed that forests and woodlands were important to the public, because they were wildlife habitats, and 88 per cent want “a lot more trees planted” to tackle climate change.
Despite enthusiastic tree-planting promises at the last general election, planting rates in England are currently 71 per cent below the Government’s target, and, globally, deforestation continues apace.
Last year, 4.2 million hectares of primary rainforest — an area the size of the Netherlands — was lost: up 12 per cent on 2019. The resulting carbon emissions are equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars — more than double the number on the road in the United States.
The Church of England has a significant part to play in all this. The Church Commissioners, who oversee an £8-billion investment fund, are one of the largest owners of commercial woodland in the UK after buying 15 separate forests in 2014. They currently have 95,000 acres of woodland under management: 64,000 acres overseas, and the rest in the UK, with the majority in Scotland. These forests are also home to 31 megawatts (MW) of installed wind-power, with an additional 168MW currently under construction in their existing forests.
The Church’s forestry portfolio accounts for about 4.9 per cent of the total value of the Commissioners’ Fund, and has been a profitable investment. In 2019, its timber portfolio generated a return of 10.1 per cent.
These investments have caused less controversy than their holdings in fossil-fuel companies. Trees, if managed correctly, can be anti-fossil-fuel, sucking heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it in their trunks.
This is why they are a vital part of the equation in reaching the goal of net-zero emissions. The best way to keep carbon dioxide locked away in wood is in living trees that can also reduce air pollution and provide habitat for wildlife, but, in commercial timber plantations, the trees are cut down and sold to sawmills.
In carbon terms, trees used for construction are the best, as it is hoped that this wood will be a part of a home or structure for many years, or even centuries, keeping its carbon stored in the fabric of the building. Although the Commissioners do not have exact figures, an indicative chart that they provide showed that 46 per cent of the wood sold by the Church Commissioners was used for construction.
A further eight per cent goes into fencing, and six per cent to DIY products, and 18 per cent is made into plywood, chipboard, and MDF. These uses are not as effective carbon stores as construction, as they generally have a shorter life before they are thrown out and decompose, releasing their carbon. Fencing will rot and need replacing.
At the worst end of the Commissioners’ wood-lifecycle spectrum is the 15 per cent that is made into pulp and paper, which is mostly short-lived, and the six per cent that is burned for energy.
Short-life-cycle uses of wood are problematic, as they take many years for the trees to grow and absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and only seconds for their carbon to be returned to atmosphere, further driving climate change.
These felled trees may be replanted immediately, making it look like a sustainable process on a spreadsheet, but the new trees will take many years to grow to the point that they can sequester the equivalent carbon of their predecessors. It takes even fast-growing conifers about 30 years to reach maturity.
BESIDES being a vital carbon sink and a habitat for wildlife, forests are also a vital amenity for people to enjoy and benefit from. Researchers have found that visiting a forest can improve attention span and enhance recovery from psychological stress.
Walking among trees can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while lowering anxiety. It can even boost the immune system as the walker breathes in phytoncides, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.
Although some forests are made accessible by their owners, too many commercial forests, despite being open to the public, do not accommodate visitors well.
Apart from “retaining footpaths” the Church Commissioners did not list any specific measures that they take to enable access to their forests, although one of their largest forests, Llandegla, in north Wales, has a mountain-biking centre with public access for a range of recreational activities.
Morag Paterson is a community (parish) councillor in Dumfries and Galloway, an area surrounded by Scotland’s commercial forestry industry. A campaigner for greater access to forests, she says: “Forests are such a valuable asset. Beyond their environmental benefit — when planted in the right places — they are something everyone can use and appreciate.
“But, sadly, many commercial forests are hard to access, or have been designed without taking amenity into account. Despite Scotland’s right-to-roam legislation, allowing people to walk pretty much anywhere, in some of these forests you get the feeling access isn’t encouraged.
“That’s one reason why, for many locals, the forestry business feels like yet another extractive industry, owned and profited from by people far away. It would be great to see forest owners doing more to ensure their woodlands don’t just make a financial return, but are also places that can be enjoyed by the local communities that live alongside them.
“It would be wonderful if the Church Commissioners, as one of the biggest commercial forest-owners in Scotland, made public access a real priority.”
The Forest Policy Group, a Scottish think tank, also urged the Commissioners to show greater leadership as forest owners. They said: “The focus of their Scottish forest holdings appears to be maximisation of profit, with no interest in or concessions to the local community, and the annual Commissioners’ report covers forestry performance like any other forestry investor.
“We’re disappointed that an institution such as the Church Commissioners, who espouse Christian values of poverty relief, individual and community well-being, and kindness, are engaged in a wholly profit-led type of industrial forestry, with little or no local benefits accruing, and we would encourage the Church of England to more fully engage with their land investments and provide some leadership in this sector.”
A spokesperson for the Commissioners said that the profits went to various good causes around the UK: “The Church Commissioners uses its fund to generate investment returns to provide sustainable funding to the Church, with a focus on areas of particular need.
“The Church carries out some 35,000 community and social-impact projects, which have an enormous and positive impact on the local communities they serve, ranging from foodbanks to debt counselling to support groups for the elderly.
“The Church Commissioners are a leading responsible investor, and our forestry portfolio is a key part of our approach. Proactively making low-carbon investments is a crucial part of our approach to tackling climate change, and our sustainably certified forestry portfolio is the cornerstone of this strategy.”
LAST year, the Church of England received praise around the world — from climate scientists and climate vulnerable communities, among others — for setting itself a net-zero target of 2030: a goal supported by the majority of the public (56 per cent) in a recent YouGov poll.
The General Synod motion, carried overwhelmingly in February 2020 (News, 14 February 2020), calls for all parts of the Church of England, including the national church institutions (NCIs), of which the Church Commissioners are one, to achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2030.
Instead, the Church Commissioners have set their own target of getting their investment portfolio to net zero by 2050, which is no more ambitious than the 2050 target that the Government has set for the UK as a whole.
The Suffragan Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick
A spokesperson for the Commissioners explained: “As an asset owner with holdings across all aspects of the global economy, the Church Commissioners do not have direct operational control of the assets in their portfolio. Therefore, their journey to net zero is reliant on influencing change in the economy and policy environment as a whole, rather than implementing carbon-saving measures themselves.
“The Commissioners focus on using their influence as a responsible investor to engage companies and policy makers on setting and supporting net zero targets, thus bringing more constituents of their portfolio on to the same decarbonisation pathway.”
The assets that they had direct control over, such as forestry, were used to fulfil their fiduciary duty while working to reduce global emissions, they said.
Canon Martin Gainsborough, Chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol, who tabled the net-zero Synod amendment, said: “While it is understandable that the Church Commissioners are trying to combine fulfilling their fiduciary duty of supporting the mission of the Church of England with simultaneously working to drive down global carbon emissions, it would be good to see all the NCIs commit to the net-zero target set by General Synod in February 2020.
“Where the NCIs are engaging with companies and policy-makers to encourage them to extend their decarbonisation targets, it would be good to hear more about the practical difference their engagement is making. In sum, transparency is key, and the more ambitious the Church of England can be, the better.”
Rachel Mander, a member of the Young Christian Climate Network, agrees: “For those of us who will be in our thirties when the world likely reaches 1.5º warming, it is not just a disappointment but a horror that the Church Commissioners are exempting themselves from the motion passed at General Synod calling for all NCIs to become net zero by 2030.
“The Church Commissioners must engage with the vision set out by Synod. Institutions beholden to an unjust status quo always respond to a call for change with a call to gradualism, and this is clearly no different.”
THE good news is that the Commissioners continue to plant more trees. In the past two years, they planted five million trees: three million in the United States, and two million in the UK.
A spokesperson for the Commissioners said: “The majority of trees were pine, spruce, and Douglas fir, but also included a variety of other coniferous and broad-leaved species carefully selected to suit each location.”
There are criticisms, however, that, having almost all their UK forests in Scotland and Wales, the Commissioners could be making better use of their English land. An investigation by Friends of the Earth mapped tree cover in England, and created a league table, ranking the largest landowners by the proportion of their land which is wooded.
Unsurprisingly, the Forestry Commission came out on top at 85 per cent, but the Church Commissioners came last, with just three to four per cent of their English land wooded, behind the Crown Estate at 15 per cent, and the RSPB at ten per cent.
As much of England is owned by relatively few large landowners, campaigners say that they have a responsibility to plant more trees and use their landbetter in a way that will help tackle the climate and nature crises.
The Church has an even higher calling, having declared its responsibility to protect the environment, and follow the Fifth Mark of Mission, to “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.
This was highlighted in Parliament in November, when the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, was pressed by the MP Kerry McCarthy on whether more could be done to plant trees on the Commissioners’ land.
Mr Selous responded that he “genuinely welcomed her scrutiny” on the matter, but that, because most of their farmland was managed by tenants, they were limited in the action that they could take, and they did encourage their tenants to farm sustainably and plant trees.
A spokesperson for the Commissioners said that 39 per cent of the Commissioners’ land was high-quality Grade 1 and 2, suitable for food production, and that a further 56 per cent was Grade 3, and considered to be good or moderate quality.
“Such land is capable of producing strong yields of crops, including cereals and grass, and therefore over 95 per cent of the Commissioners’ portfolio is considered to be essential for production and livestock grazing throughout the country. The Commissioners consider where appropriate that marginal land will be the areas of focus for additional tree-planting and other environmental improvements.”
BUT this is not convincing campaigners such as Guy Shrubsole, the author of the book Who Owns England, which mapped the owners of land in England and how it is used. He said: “The ‘encouragement’ to tenants is clearly not proving very effective, when only three to four per cent of the Church Commissioners’ land in England is wooded.
“I’ve spoken to one of the Commissioners’ tenant farmers, who told me they were actively discouraged from planting trees by their landlord’s agents.
“The reality is that the Church Commissioners have a high degree of sway over how they use their land. Of the five per cent of their land they describe as not ‘essential’ for food production, I look forward to seeing their plans to give it back to nature.
“Allowing natural regeneration on this land alone would more than double the woodland cover on their English estates. And, clearly, there’s plenty of Grade 3 land where orchards and other forms of agroforestry would be entirely appropriate, thereby increasing habitat and carbon sequestration as well as food production.”
A new campaign is about to be launched, urging the Church Commissioners to do exactly this, and make their land more accommodating to nature. The WildCard campaign’s long-term goal is to rewild 50 per cent of the UK, which they define as allowing “untamed life to return to ecosystems and landscapes, such that they are once again sustained by the natural processes that created them in the first place”.
It will start by persuading the Church Commissioners, the Crown Estate, and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge to lead the way by rethinking their land-management practices.
These landowners are not only traditional stewards of the land, but “teachers or leaders of the British people”, and the campaign calls on them to “step into this stewardship role in a real and meaningful sense by rewilding and restoring their deadened land”.
A co-founder of the campaign, Clarice Holt, says that, as moral leaders of the nation, the Church is in a unique position to pioneer a new relationship between people, nature, and the land we share.
She said: “The royals have stewardship over land and people. The Church provides moral, religious, and spiritual guidance. Oxbridge is bringing up the next group of people who are probably going to rule the country and are supposed to shape young people’s ideas of how things are supposed to work.
“If those household names were to shift their perspectives on rewilding, they would bring a lot of people with them and would set the gold standard for rewilding as a general concept.”
The campaign is a response, in part, to the environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The 2016 State of Nature report, compiled by more than 50 conservation and research organisations, found that the UK was “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”.
This dire state is mirrored globally: scientists predict that, on our current trajectory of habitat loss and global warming, between one third and one half of all species will face extinction by the end of this century. This will obviously have a significant impact on human communities.
THIS year, these twin crises will be addressed on the global stage, with the COP26 climate talks taking place in the UK for the first time in Glasgow, in November, and a UN biodiversity conference in China, in October.
In response to this, a number of countries, including the UK and European Union, have signed up to the 30 by 30 initiative, making a commitment to protecting 30 per cent of their land for biodiversity by 2030.
Asked whether the Commissioners would consider matching the pledge, a spokesperson said: “The 30 by 30 targets are currently supported by national governments. As and when the UK Government details its plans to meet this target and the role that landowners can play, we will assess our involvement in line with our financial objectives and net-zero ambitions.”
A new government-backed scheme, however, launched by Forestry England, could help the Church to increase the tree cover on its English estate, improve the public access and biodiversity of its woodland, and get a guaranteed financial return.
The Forestry England Woodland Partnership is looking for landowners who can offer at least 50 hectares of land for a long-term lease of between 60 to 120 years. Once agreed, Forestry England will design, plant, and manage every site, including any local consultations.
The Forestry England website states: “This means landowners will see thriving woodland established on their land without the need for capital investment or their own forestry expertise and will receive an annual rental payment for the duration of the lease.”
The payments will come from the Nature for Climate Fund to support the Government’s tree-planting commitment.
The Suffragan Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick, urged church landowners to investigate the initiative. “There must be some church-owned land that could connect with this win-win scheme. A guaranteed income, more biodiverse woodland, and a contribution to our 2030 net zero carbon target.
“The Church, as investors and as an institution that cares about both creation and our communities, is in it for the long haul. It seems to me church landowners would be an ideal candidate for a scheme that is looking for long-term partners that could create a lasting amenity with so many benefits.”
The growing urgency around the environment crisis has shone a new light on our relationship with the land. It is clear that many are looking to the Church, as one of the nation’s biggest and highest-profile landowners, to build on its current forestry holdings and lead the way in modelling a restorative relationship with creation.
The chief executive of the Christian conservation charity A Rocha, Andy Atkins, says that there are many people willing to help. “Happily, many in the Church are waking up to the need to act for nature as well as climate change. But the UK urgently needs all denominations with land to act rapidly and at scale, to help avert a national wildlife catastrophe.”