How much water do forests use?

Coalburn forest hydrology researh catchment
Coalburn in the north of England is Britain's longest running forest hydrology research catchment, providing a unique 35-year record of the long-term effects of conifer afforestation on upland water supplies

The amount of water that a forest uses remains an important subject of debate around the world. Trees and forests have the ability to use more water than shorter types of vegetation. This has led to concerns that major afforestation schemes could reduce water supplies, leading to water shortages and increased costs.

Much research has been undertaken to quantify the water use by different tree species or forest types, including in the UK. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question of how much water forests use and research continues to improve our ability to predict the impact of forestry on water supplies.

The factors that influence the water use of trees and how conifers and broadleaves are likely to affect water supplies in different parts of the UK are addressed in Forestry Commission Information Note 65:

Water use by trees (PDF-1139K)

Figure showing how forests use water
How trees use water

Key points

  • In general, conifers lose between 25 to 45% of annual rainfall by interception, compared to 10 to 25% for broadleaves and almost 0% for grass.
  • Conifers tend to lose an additional 300 mm to 350 mm per year due to transpiration, compared to 300 mm to 390 mm for broadleaves and 400 mm to 600 mm for grass.
  • Interception and transpiration losses vary between different species, with some species such as willow and poplar able to sustain very high transpiration losses (e.g. >500 mm/yr) when well supplied with water.
  • Water use varies greatly throughout the year; maximum daily transpiration loss for large individual trees can vary between 500 l to 2000 l on a hot summer day.
  • On a catchment basis in the wetter uplands, the additional water use by a complete cover of mature conifer forest can result in a 15 to 20% reduction in the annual volume of streamflow.
  • The impact on water supplies can be even greater in the lowlands, where a conifer forest can reduce the annual volume of water recharging a groundwater aquifer by 70% or more compared to grass.
  • The impact of broadleaved woodland is much less than conifers and some species on certain soils and geologies can actually increase the annual volume of groundwater recharge.
  • It is possible to control the impact of forests on water supplies by varying species choice, forest age and the scale of forest cover within a catchment.
  • The ability of some forests to reduce water supplies needs to be balanced against other benefits, including the potential to protect water quality and enhance freshwater habitats.
  • Climate change could have a strong effect on water use by forests and thus on their impact on water supplies. This subject is being addressed through research and monitoring work.

Forest and Water Guidelines

Publication coverOne of a series of seven Guidelines that support The UK Forestry Standard (UKFS). The UKFS and Guidelines outline the context for forestry in the UK, set out the approach of the UK governments to sustainable forest management, define standards and requirements and provide a basis for regulation and monitoring.

Forests & Water Guidelines

Research objectives

The main objective is to improve our ability to quantify the amount of water used by trees through a range of process, field-catchment and modelling studies. Much of our knowledge of the impact of forestry on water supplies has been gained through a number of collaborative and external catchment studies.

The main sites are at: