Interview with Darren Moorcroft, chief executive of the Woodland Trust

We interviewed Darren Moorcroft, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, asking him questions ranging from how the Woodland Trust is helping to address the issues around climate change, to the role business can play in protecting woodland ecosystems in the UK.

How does the Woodland Trust address the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss?

As the largest UK woodland conservation trust focused on native trees, we have a solution that counteracts both emergencies. Everything we do to improve environmental wellbeing is through trees, and we protect, restore and create new woodlands at scale. We also work to prevent the degradation of the UK’s ancient woodlands which are crucial in supporting native biodiversity – currently, only 2.4% of this irreplaceable habitat remains.

There’s no better natural solution for increasing carbon sequestration than trees. The Trust has created more native woodland and planted more trees than anyone in the UK. Having planted 4.1 million native trees in 2019, we’re expecting to deliver over 50 million by 2030, helping to lock in significant quantities of carbon.

What do you consider to be the greatest successes of the Woodland Trust to date?

Since our founding in 1972, we’ve planted over 47 million native trees. More importantly, we’ve helped to connect hundreds of thousands of people – especially schoolchildren – to nature. The growth of our UK support base to over 500,000 people has also enabled us to increase our impact by operating at scale.

I’m particularly proud of the recent establishment of our first Young People’s Forest near Heanor in Derbyshire. This covers a 162-hectare site purchased by the Trust which will see the planting of 250,000 trees over the next few years. We hope that engaging new generations in long-term projects like this will help to foster a greater passion for woodland conservation in the future.

What are the biggest ongoing threats to UK woodlands?

The most significant threat is tree pests and diseases. Climate change in particular is creating opportunities for these to wipe out huge numbers of native trees across the UK – it’s estimated, for example, that around 120 million ash trees could be lost to a resurgence of ash dieback. Consequently, we increase our new tree stocks through our UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown Assurance Scheme, ensuring that seeds are sourced and grown domestically, reducing the risk of importing diseases from abroad. With ambitious UK net-zero carbon planting targets, there’s a risk that importing stocks to expedite the process may create new conservation challenges further ahead.

Another significant threat is unsustainable development degrading or destroying our irreplaceable habitats. The Trust recognises the need for development in the UK, but hopes that more will be done to ensure that natural assets in and around development sites are protected or incorporated into projects where appropriate.

What policy changes do you think would help ensure a positive future for woodlands and biodiversity in the UK?

We’ve seen some progress with a policy shift towards providing more public money for public goods. Encouragingly, public funds are being diverted into agricultural and environmental policies that recognise the value of healthy ecosystems like woodlands to society as a whole. This, however, only applies to England at present, so the next challenge is to get these policies extended across the UK. Indeed, the government’s net-zero carbon targets may help galvanise that extension.

Why is biodiversity – and specifically woodland – important for business?

Fundamentally, it underpins our economy. Supply chains depending on clean water, fertile soil or quality timber rely on the quality and sustainability of those resources to maintain output. Woodlands in particular have a key role in guaranteeing that long-term sustainability. Current harvesting systems in the UK will exhaust quality supply stocks eventually, so the way we extract from and manage our countryside has to change.

We also undervalue the importance of green spaces in creating good living and working environments. Feeling more connected to nature can help relieve workplace stress, and increase productivity.

Tourism revenues would undoubtedly benefit from more beautiful green spaces, rich in native wildlife, and business in general should take note that there are few carbon reduction strategies more effective than woodlands.

What role can business play in protecting woodland ecosystems in the UK?

All businesses can play a role by demonstrating how they value ecosystems and biodiversity as a whole through their operations, policies and board-level decisions. If your business is financial, ensure that your decisions account for the sustainability of the work you’re financing. As an insurer, you might look to reduce damage claims by supporting the growth of new woodlands as natural flood management systems. Developers should ensure that their projects create a net gain for biodiversity and source their building materials from sustainably managed stocks. Food producers can encourage supply chains to integrate trees into their land management systems to preserve the long-term quality of soil and water.

Do financial markets attribute sufficient economic value to natural ecosystems, such as woodlands? If not, how might markets place greater value on natural capital?

From our perspective, markets don’t currently attribute sufficient economic value to natural assets as their benefits are still very much taken for granted. There are, however, some companies recognising the economic value of nature-based solutions. Water companies, for example, have paid to stop certain farming practices polluting their groundwater sources because it’s more cost-effective than treating water for pesticides and other contaminants further down the line.

Alongside an extended ‘public money for public goods’ model, we need more recognition from businesses that their supply chains will suffer if insufficient investment is made in the protection and preservation of natural resources. While defining economic value isn’t easy, natural capital accounting and assessments of climate change on future resource sustainability are steps in the right direction towards establishing measurable worth.