Fifteen Emerging Issues will impact UK Forests in next 50 years

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A European team of experts has developed a list of 15 emerging issues that have been previously over-looked and will likely have a significant impact on UK forests in the next five decades. The list was produced as part of the Horizon Scanning excercise – a first of its kind technique –  to identify hitherto unknown threats, opportunities, and emerging trends in UK forests. This was done to provide information so that researchers and practitioners can prepare against future threats before they become critical.

“The next 50 years will bring huge changes to UK forests: the threats they face, the way that we manage them, and the benefits they deliver to society.”, Dr. Eleanor Tew, first author, visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Head of Forest Planning at Forestry England said.

The project was a collaboration between Forestry England, a part of the Forestry Commission, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the study was published in the journal Forestry.

A group of 42 experts from a variety of fields, organizations, and regions surveyed their networks to identify overlooked and emerging issues that could affect UK forests in the next 50 years. The resulting list of 180 items was narrowed down to 30 through a series of review exercises. In a final workshop, the panelists identified the top 15 issues they believed would have the greatest impact on UK forests in the next 50 years.


The research method did not allow for the ranking of the 15 issues in order of importance or likelihood of occurrence. However, when the experts scored each issue individually, “catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse” was the highest-ranked issue, with 64% of experts ranking it as their top issue and 88% ranking it within their top three.

“Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse” is a process triggered by multiple, interconnected threats, which can lead to the partial or complete destruction of forests. This has already happened in parts of continental Europe and North America.

Tew said, “We hope the results from this horizon scanning exercise serve as an urgent call to action to build on and dramatically upscale action to increase forest resilience.”

The team also identified droughts caused by climate change as an issue that may lead to increased competition for water resources between forests and people. Conversely, forests are an important natural resource to mitigate the impacts of floods caused by climate change.

Furthermore, viral diseases that can impact trees were also identified as an issue. Globalization and climate change are driving an increase in pests and pathogens in the UK, with viruses and viroids forming the largest group on the UK Plant Health Risk Register. Despite this, we know little about how viral diseases affect forest tree species and the broader ecosystem.

Extreme weather due to climate change also impacts forest management, which means there might be less time available for forestry work such as harvesting and thinning.


Some opportuniteies were also identified, including the fact that trees will likely form an important component of future urban planning. The experts believe that they will serve as lungs of the forest because more and more people will understand and accept their benefits to society. As such, they predict an increase in green infrastructure and connectivity between urban and rural areas.

International commitments to protect nature could have a positive impact on local forest management practices. For example, new regulations requiring companies to report on their supply chain impacts on nature, such as those being developed by the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), could encourage companies to adopt more nature-friendly forest management practices.

“These results are both concerning and exciting. However, we should be optimistic, remembering that these are possibilities and not certainties. Crucially, we have time to act; by responding to the threats and embracing the opportunities, future generations can have resilient forests with all the benefits they offer.”, Tew concluded.

“We are already seeing dramatic events in Europe’s forests whether fires, disease or bark beetles, whilst the importance of trees is increasingly recognized. Horizon scanning to identify future issues is key, especially as trees planted now will face very different circumstances as they mature in scores of years.”, said Senior author and pioneer of horizon scanning, Professor Bill Sutherland from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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