The United Kingdom is one of the least forested countries in Europe. Historically, woodland habitats would have taken up a prominent amount of the country, the most common type of vegetation being broadleaved trees such as oak, ash and lime. However over the past 5,000 years, 90% of this cover has been lost, due mainly to human activity: cutting firewood and clearance for agriculture. By the beginning of this century, woodland cover was reduced to just 5% of the land area of Britain. Today, forest cover is estimated at around 10% which is 2.5 million hectare (1 ha = 10,000m2 and 100 ha = 1 km2), but much of that around 6-7% is composed of conifer plantations, mostly non-native species, some of which have been planted on sites which had high biodiversity value as open ground. Areas of Britain that have remained continually wooded since 1600 cover about 1% of the land surface of Britain (300,000 ha), and around 16,000 ha of distinctive Caledonian Pine Forest remains in a few Scottish glens. In total, native woodland makes up just 2.5% of the land area of Great Britain.
Current government policy aims to increase woodland cover, both plantations of exotic species and native woodland, for production as well as for environmental and social purposes. There is a specific target to plant 5,000 ha of new native woodland each year , and a number of forest creation projects exist (e.g. the National Forest, Central Scotland Forest, the Millennium Forest).
Size of forest areas in Britain is variable, from small woodlands of 0.25 ha to the 50,000 ha Kielder forest in the north of England, one of the largest man-made forests in Europe. The majority of forests in England, however, are less than 50 ha. In Scotland, on the other hand, two thirds of the forests are over 500 ha.
Forest and woodland ownership is divided between private and public. The government forest service, the Forestry Commission, manages about 35% of the country’s woodland, about 10% is owned by other public voluntary bodies, 20% by farmers and 35% by other private owners .
The extent of production forestry differs between woodland type, conifer plantations being very largely production forests. The UK produces around 15% of its timber needs from domestic forests; efforts have been and continue to be made to stimulate the timber industry, and it is predicted that the volume of wood from British forests will increase from almost 9 million cubic metres per year today (up from 4 million cubic metres in the 1970s) to 15 million cubic metres per year in 2020. Particular efforts are being made to revitalise traditional management in neglected broadleaved woodland.Whilst much of the forest was lost in historical times, the middle part of this century also saw a significant decline, and approximately 45% of the ancient and semi-natural woodland that existed in 1945 has been lost since that time . The major causes have been conversion to agriculture or replacement with conifer plantations. Losses from these causes should, in theory at least, have ceased in 1985 with the introduction of the government’s broadleaf policy.