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Impacts of climate change on woodlands in the South East

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Sweet Chesnut leaves and fruit

A Research Note published by the Forestry Commission suggests that tree species such as alder and Norway spruce are likely to become less able to grow in the South East with hotter drier summers predicted in the future.  The research suggests oak, sweet chestnut and the less well known hornbeam may be better suited to the future climate in the region. 

The Research Note evaluates the likely impacts of future climate changes on trees, woodlands and forests in the UK based on low and high emission scenarios of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the middle and towards the end of the century.  It provides guidance on the action required to ensure woodlands in the south are resilient to increased risk of drought stress and other climate changes in the next 40 to 70 years.

Mark Broadmeadow, Climate Change Policy and Programme Manager for Forestry Commission England, said:

“It is so important for people to understand how trees will be affected in the future with hotter and drier summers likely, particularly in the South. The pace of change that climate scientists tell us is likely is equivalent to species ranges moving north forty feet every day.  So the action we take now in Southern England, particularly when planting new woodlands, is critical; it will determine the fate of our woodlands in the future. But it also represents a real challenge, because what we plant must be right for both the current climate, and the climate of the future.”

The reduction in summer rainfall means the impact of warm drier summers is likely to be greatest in woodlands on shallow, freely draining soils, particularly those with a high proportion of sand or stones.  On these sites there may be reduced tree growth and increased mortality of some species.

The incorporation of adaptation measures into forest planing in a flexible way, an ‘adaptative management’ approach, is recommended to accommodate uncertainty in the future climate and variation in site conditions. A great variety of tree species and trees of different ages together with genetic diversity at the forest level will be key to managing risk. 

During the restoration of ancient woodlands on the public forest estate, the Forestry Commission has introduced species diversity for several decades.  By selecting species more resilient to warmer drier climates when planting new trees, the Forestry Commission is also helping to protect the next generation of trees and woodlands in the South East for the future.

The Research Note also suggests that across the wider countryside ancient woodland should be buffered with new planting to create larger core woodland areas. Taking a landscape approach, the Forestry Commission offers grant aid to private landowners to enable new woodlands to be planted to expand woodland in the region.
Mark Broadmeadow, added:

“Adaptive management also means that we have to monitor success – and failure; only then will we know that those measures that research suggests are the right actions really do make woodlands more resilient to the future climate.”

A series of research trials are being established across Europe to identify species more tolerant of drier summers, which will help inform the Forestry Commission on appropriate action in the UK.

The Research Note states:

“The extent and timing of changes to the climate are uncertain and it is not possible to predict the future climate change with a high level of confidence, nor the precise impacts on trees and woodlands.  However, the analyses and projections presented …. make it clear the future climate will be different from the recent ‘norm’ and, moreover, continually changing - at least over the next century.  We therefore need to adapt forests and their management to this changing future.”

Because of the long planning horizon for forestry action is needed now to ensure that forestry can make an important contribution to a future low carbon society, helping to mitigate climate change through providing woodfuel and sustainable timber products. Adaptation is also essential to protect woodlands and forests for wildlife and biodiversity and for people to use and enjoy.

The Forestry Commission Research Note ‘Climate Change: impacts and adaptation in England’s woodlands’ was written by Duncan Ray and James Morison from Forest Research and Mark Broadmeadow from Forestry Commission England.  It is available to download from the on-line publications catalogue at Hard copies are available from Forestry Commission Publications, PO Box 501, Leicester LE94 0AA, tel: 0844 991 6500; e-mail:

For further information about the Forestry Commission, Forest Research and work on climate change visit and 
Notes to editor

  1. In England there is evidence that the climate has changed considerably over the last 50 years and this is consistent with what is known about the effects of increasing GHG on global temperatures.  For example, 10 of the 12 warmest years in the 350-year Central England Temperature records have occurred in the last 20 years, and winters are becoming wetter and summers slightly drier.

  2. The mean annual temperature has risen by one degree centigrade since the 1970s with 2006 being the warmest year in 350 year record, 1.3 degrees warmer than the 1961-1990 average.  While January 2010 was the coldest January since 1963 in the UK, globally it was the warmest January on record.

  3. Annual mean precipitation over England has not changed significantly since records began in 1766 but rainfall appears to have decreased in the summer and increased in the winter.  This trend is projected to strengthen and the observed changes to date are likely to be small in comparison with likely changes in the future.

  4. Records of the Pedunculate Oak begun in 1947 in Surrey show how sensitive the date of first leafing is to mean spring temperature.  Leafing has advanced approximately six days for every one degree centigrade increase in spring temperature and is now 25 days earlier than in the 1950’s.  Many trees respond similarly.

  5. Forest Research is part of the Forestry Commission.  It carries out scientific research and technical development relevant to forestry and in support of sustainable forest management for a range of internal and external clients worldwide. See

  6. Media Contacts
    Jo Spouncer, Press Officer Forestry Commission South East
    T: 01483 326265 M: 07828 762045