Planting a forest — all you need to know
- New forests larger than two hectares require permission from the Forestry Commission
- What you can plant depends on location as well as weather, wildlife and soil quality
- Wider tree spacing can help promote biodiversity but isn’t ideal for every forest
Whether it's to fight the climate crisis, grow commercial timber, or create a beautiful natural environment, there are plenty of reasons to plant your own forest.
But creating woodland isn’t as simple as planting saplings and letting nature take care of the rest. There are a lot of factors to consider, from how to select the right mix of trees to what paperwork you’ll need to get started. In this guide we’ll take you through everything you need to know to get your dream forest plans underway.
What do you need to plant a forest?
The first and most important thing you’ll need to start planting a forest is of course the land to plant it on. And there are a few different avenues to go down here.
One option is to buy a plot of existing woodland. Regenerating or restoring a natural forest can give you a welcome head start if planting from scratch isn’t viable. You can also buy clear-felled woodland, such as a former commercial timber site, and restock it as a new forest. But be aware that these plots require a lot of clearing to remove root systems and damaging weeds and insects.
Alternatively, you can buy a fresh plot of land for new planting or afforestation. Technically, you can plant trees on any land you own, providing they don’t damage neighbouring properties. But the Woodland Trust says new trees should not be planted on wetlands, heathlands or grassland that’s never been ploughed. This preserves the ecosystems that already exist there.
For peace of mind, you can check for any nature reserves, conservation sites or protected areas associated with a plot using the environmental map layers in Addland Pro.
If you're planning to plant more than two hectares of forest, you'll need permission from the Forestry Commission as well as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before you can begin. You'll also need to draw up a woodland creation plan, outlining your objectives and any potential opportunities or constraints on usage, such as timber production or leisure.
To be eligible for grant funding from the Forestry Commission, this creation plan must comply with the UK Forestry Standard for sustainable forest management.
Choosing the right trees
Deciding what to plant can be a tricky process. For starters, the UK has over 70 species of native trees, each with distinct growth and aftercare requirements.
You need to plant species that are carefully chosen based on your particular piece of land. That's especially true if you're planting on degraded or deforested land, as the previous human involvement may mean your trees need more attentive management early on.
Everything from soil type, landscape and topography, to local weather patterns and wildlife will determine which species you can grow. The Woodland Trust offers advice on choosing the right species mix, but you can also look at neighbouring woodland to get an idea of what already thrives nearby.
Generally, it's best to plant trees grown from UK-sourced seed. Firstly, that will give your forest the best chance of long-term survival. Native tree species are already suited to the environment, have less chance of being damaged in transit, and won't carry imported disease strains. And secondly, for eco-conscious forest projects, buying domestically also has a much lower carbon footprint.
Planning out your forest
One of the biggest questions when it comes to planting is tree spacing. As a general rule, commercial timber trees are planted at 2 metre intervals to maximise yield, while amenity woodland tends to be more spaced out at 2.5 to 3 metres.
But there’s no fixed template to go by. Wider spacing means you’ll get much broader canopies and heavier branches, which is ideal for broadleaved trees like oak and ash but causes knotting in conifers like Sitka spruce. Dense forests lead to thinner trunks, but they can also help prevent broadleaved trees from growing crooked or forked.
Think about what you’re trying to achieve and what best serves that. If you’re trying to promote biodiversity, for example, wider spacing and even the odd glade will allow sunlight to reach the forest floor to nurture more flora and fauna. Your forest might look bare when first planted, but those saplings will soon fill out the space around them.
Make sure to leave some space between the trees for footpaths, both for leisure and forestry access. You will also have to factor in leaving buffer zones if your forest is adjacent to any water courses, residential property, public roads or archaeological sites.
Planting a forest is a long-term vision that requires a lot of thorough planning. But it’s also a project that can bring great rewards, both for yourself and for generations to come.
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