New research will investigate how trees adapt to environmental change and could help the UK achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The Government has pledged to plant millions of trees every year, increasing tree cover from 13 to 17 per cent of the UK, in order to help meet the net zero target by 2050 and reverse decades of decline in biodiversity. However, in order to do this, trees need to become more resilient to a changing climate, pests and diseases.

A multidisciplinary research team, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) will investigate how quickly tree species can adapt to these environmental pressures.

Dr Stephen Cavers of UKCEH, principal investigator of the project, called newLEAF, says: “We need millions more trees in our landscape to help the UK achieve net zero, but a more unstable future climate, and new pests and diseases, make planning ahead difficult. We don’t yet know if they can adapt fast enough.

“Our new project will establish if tree populations will be resilient to these challenges and, if not, what human intervention is needed. We will also investigate how people make decisions in uncertain times, and how best we can use new scientific knowledge to inform policymaking and land management practices.”

Dr Cavers, an ecologist specialising in plant genetic diversity, will lead a multidisciplinary team of scientists, economists and artists from UKCEH, the Universities of York, Strathclyde, Stirling and Glasgow, Robert Gordon University, James Hutton Institute and Forest Research.

The study is one of six new projects that will each receive a share of £10.5 million funding from UK Research and Innovation as part of its Future of UK Treescapes programme, which will inform decision making by governments, local authorities and land managers.

The programme will also improve our understanding of the value of trees to society, including benefits for people’s wellbeing and the economy.

A separate project involving UKCEH and other leading research institutes will improve our understanding of the value of trees to society, including benefits for people’s wellbeing, cultural heritage and wildlife.

The research team, led by the University of York, will demonstrate how the Government, local authorities and other private and public land owners can ensure these benefits can be secured for the future, through policy and best practice.

UKCEH ecologist Dr Michael Pocock, who will be part of the Connected Treescapes project, explains:  “Long-term woodland management requires consideration of many different elements – both the benefits and the threats – in order to establish how best to manage trees in our landscapes.”

UKCEH will use its expertise in monitoring land use and analysing volunteer-collected wildlife data to explore how changes in tree cover in recent decades have affected the ecosystems that depend on them.

This analysis will contribute to the project’s recommendations for effective management of community forests – networks of sites under public and private ownership – to support the public benefits that trees provide.

The four other projects in the Future of UK Treescapes programme will: assess the potential of woodland restoration along England’s rivers and streams; evaluate the social and cultural benefits of urban treescapes; collaborate with young people to explore how they connect with forests; and investigate how trees respond to stress and pass on that ‘memory’ to future generations.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, part of UK Research and Innovation, says: “Our trees and forests are a precious resource and part of the solution to tackling the climate and ecological emergencies we face and helping the UK reach net zero in 2050.

“This research will increase our understanding of the huge societal, economic, cultural and environmental benefits associated with treescapes.”