Thursday, March 12, 2020

Lancashire Woodland Connect: A natural solution for combatting the climate crisis

By Kristina Graves, Ribble Rivers Trust

Welcome to 2020 the start of a decade of climate and conservation action! 

We are all well aware of the biodiversity and climate crises that are facing us. The extinction of hundreds of species, recent fires in the Amazon and Australia, and, more locally, the recent floods that have affected Lancashire and other areas within the UK should not be the legacy of this decade, or even the year. The causes of these crises are varied and numerous, and solving them (if at all possible) won’t be straight forward, and it certainly won’t be easy; a combination of new technology, shifting behaviour and embracing natural solutions must be a part of the answer.

One natural solution that is getting a lot of media attention at the moment is woodlands, and rightly so. Woodlands are a valuable tool in combatting the climate crisis. 

Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow and store it in their trunks, branches, roots and leaves: a process called carbon sequestration. 

Woodlands are also very good at slowing the flow of water down the catchment and into the river. For starters, their physical presence acts as a barrier to water flowing over the ground both directly and indirectly, through encouraging the growth of a scrubby understorey, which also hinders surface water flow. Secondly, our soils generally benefit from woodlands; they tend to be less compacted in the presence of trees, allowing water to soak into the ground instead of running into the river. The roots of trees and undergrowth anchor the soil in place meaning there’s more of it to absorb water, and the less soil that is in the river means there is greater capacity for water in the channel! Whilst more woodland won’t stop flooding happening ever again, it will contribute to less devastating consequences for people and homes after bouts of heavy rainfall.

Woodlands also have the potential to support biodiversity. Firstly, woods are areas of  trees and other plants that directly support populations of floral species. Indirectly however, woodland creation supports much more than manual population increase. Careful planning of woodlands can improve connectivity between existing woodland patches and allows animals to roam around a greater area of suitable habitat. Increasing the area of woodland can also support a greater number of individuals and increase the capacity of the woodland to support more species. Surprisingly perhaps, woodlands can influence freshwater habitats too. 

Nearby trees provide shade over river channels and keep rivers cool, our science team at Ribble Rivers Trust have seen water temperature increase by 9 degrees in an un-shaded reach of river, enough to wipe out aquatic life! Leaf litter and branch fall from trees on the river banks provide an important source of food for freshwater invertebrates and fish and create different habitat types to support a wider range of species. 

Finally, trees and riverside vegetation prevent sediment and diffuse sources of pollution from the catchment entering the water course and toxifying the habitat for species.

A third benefit of increasing woodlands cover is the innumerable benefits that woodlands have on our health. Air quality is becoming increasingly recognised as a problem in the UK and is estimated to affect the lives of 40,00 people with respiratory problems. But where woodlands run along the side of main roads and motorways, air quality is noticeably improved which will be a key benefit as emissions are increasing as we travel more. Activities associated with delivering a woodland plan including tree-planting, woodland management, fencing and litter picking encourage us to keep active in the outdoors, and the increasing green space that results from the woodland will encourage us to step outside more and improve our physical fitness and mental health.

With all of this in mind, we at the Ribble, Lune and Wyre Rivers Trusts have been busy launching our Lancashire Woodland Connect campaign. Focusing on nature based solutions, we have developed a plan to plant 500,000 trees across the whole of Lancashire over the next 10 years. The campaign is supported by a number of local authorities who acknowledge the many benefits woodlands provide. We will work with local organisations who are looking to improve the environment for the climate, biodiversity and people and/or to offset any of their unavoidable CO2 emissions.

Historically, we have planted over 150,000 trees in the Ribble catchment alone and have therefore developed an evidence based method to ensure trees are planted where they will provide the most benefit to the widest number of people. Data collected from across the entire catchment allows us to identify priority areas for reducing risk of faecal matter, risk of sediment input, risk of sun exposure and risk of water input. We combine this information with knowledge of catchments upstream of areas with high flood risk and the information about the local landscape, habitats and wildlife to work out where trees will be most beneficial for rivers, the landscape, wildlife and people.

 In order to deliver large scale improvements, we work with a large number of farmers and land-owners to plant lots of small woodlands that will contribute to creating a network of woodland habitat across the county. It is important to remember in this that farmers are contributing their farm-able land to any woodlands we deliver and, therefore, they have a say in every step of the process. We recognise it's important to make sure that the new woodland isn’t going to impact their day-to day work around their fields. As a Trust we recognise that we are working with a family business and therefore any woodland must not only benefit the environment but must also enhance and work with the farm business.

It is no mean feat getting 500,000 trees in the ground! Our woodlands are planted by a team of enthusiastic volunteers who contribute their time and energy to planting the 50,000 trees/year necessary to reach our targets. If you want to help us improve Lancashire’s woodland cover to support our wildlife, environment and our climate please  get in touch

Without dedicated people like you, this task would be a whole lot harder! Thank you