The Woodland Trust says that the “drastic decline” in new woodland planting is “appalling” and could have serious environmental consequences.
It accused government of missing its target in England by 86%.
The environment department, Defra, said it was committed to growing woodland cover.
Data published today by the Forestry Commission, the government body responsible for expanding Britain’s woodlands, shows that 700 hectares (seven km2) of woodland was planted in England last year. The goal was to plant 5000 (50 km2).
Austin Brady from the Woodland Trust, said: “These figures are all the more shocking against the backdrop of the growing evidence of the importance of trees and woods in tackling air pollution, improving water quality and offering scope to deliver natural flood management.
“Something is drastically wrong with the way woodland planting is being supported across the various government departments that share responsibility for trees and woods.”
‘Not fit for purpose’
The government has committed to planting 11 million trees between 2015 and 2020.
Environment Minister Elizabeth Truss has spoken of their importance in helping to prevent flooding.
Speaking in the House of Commons in December 2015 she said she wanted to look at the environment “on a catchment level, making sure that we put in place tree-planting programmes that can both reduce flood risk and improve the environment”.
However, Mr Brady said: “There have been lots of really interesting and well-informed conversations – all the signals are positive, but the system of delivering the grants and getting things moving on the ground is not matching up with the fine words. It is not fit for purpose.”
The UK is one of the least wooded nations in Europe. Only 10% of England is covered in trees. Average woodland cover in the EU is 37%.
Government funding has been made available but grant schemes for planting trees changed last year.
There have been delays in processing contracts and payments. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme there are rigid rules determining the amount of land that needs to be planted and at what density to qualify for a grant.
There is also confusion around whether planting trees disqualifies farmers from part of their EU farm subsidy payments. This leads many farmers and landowners to avoid new planting altogether.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th Century and we are committed to growing it even further.
“The Countryside Stewardship scheme is an important opportunity to help expand our nation’s woodlands, which is why the Forestry Commission is supporting landowners to make applications through a series of workshops and online support.”
The Woodland Trust says that more flexible schemes are needed to allow landowners with more limited space to be able to qualify for funding. There also needs to be more clarity. Currently the government departments involved in tree management include: Defra, the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Environment Agency.
Along with the environmental benefits of trees, according to the government’s Natural Capital Committee report, which aims to put a financial price on the “ecosystem services” provided by natural resources, “woodland planting of up to 250,000 additional hectares … near towns and cities can generate net societal benefits in excess of £500 million per annum”.