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The 21st of March will be the International Day of Forests. The UN introduced this day in 2013 in order to raise awareness of sustainable management/development and conservation of the world's forest areas. The problem the UN is trying to address is deforestation. Deforestation has started in the early days of civilisation, but is increasing at an alarming rate and it is spreading around the world.

About 31% of the Earth's land mass is currently covered by forest, which means about 4 billion hectares (ha). So far, we have lost worldwide around 40% of the original forest cover; and most of the loss occurred over the last two centuries.

Although in some countries the loss of forest has slowed down, or is even reversing, in other countries deforestation is growing and leads overall to a still shrinking forest cover of the planet Earth. We still loose approximately 13 million ha of forest per year.

England has one of the lowest forest covers in Europe, if not in the world. Deforestation started here probably already in the Stone Age when trees were felled to provide material for shelter, fuel, canoes and weapons. Over the years it increased further due to the start of agriculture and also the construction of wooden houses. During the Iron Age wood from trees was then also used for the newly developed transport, e.g. for the carts, the wheels and bridges. Around this time ships were also invented and English oak may have been used for the construction of Viking ships. Shipbuilding became an important industry in England. Under Henry VIII the English and Irish forests were heavily exploited for the shipbuilding and also for the wine industry (barrels and staves).

Only 7% of the English land mass is covered by forest

The forest cover dropped to about 5% in England and just 1% in Ireland at its lowest levels at the beginning of the 20th Century. England has nowadays 7% of forest cover. This is still nowhere near the original forest cover in England, but like many other developed countries England has reversed the deforestation effect by setting up tree plantations, which provide material for today's wood industry. These plantations are however often growing foreign species of trees like conifer trees, as these are fast growing and also easier to work with.

Based on the low forest cover here in England, much of the wood needed for wood products like furniture, charcoal and paper, is now sourced to a great extend from other countries. Furthermore, agricultural products we consume here in the UK also impact forests in countries like Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and other developing countries. About 50% of products we buy and consume include for example palm oil, and we use many fruit, vegetable and meat products, which are cultivated in other countries around the world.

Sumatran Tigers and many other wildlife species are impacted by products we use here in the UK

In order to provide the world market with products like palm oil, coffee, soya and citrus or other exotic fruit and vegetables, the countries of origin for these products clear often forest areas. There is a drive to source products in a sustainable way by re-using previously cleared land for agricultural purposes, but unfortunately the demand for these products is increasing and hence to provide them, further forest areas are cut down legally and often also illegally; sometimes even in protected areas.

Demand for food and other consumer products will increase further as the world's human population has and still continues to increase. In the 1950s the population totalled 2.3 billion people, while we have currently over 7.2 billion. Not only is the overall number of people increasing, but also the rate with which the population increases, is accelerating. While it took 33 years for the population to increase from 2 billion to 3 billion (1927-60), it took only 12 years to increase from 6 to 7 billion (1999-2011). And this trend is more than likely to continue as more people will be able to produce more off-springs and human inventions lead to increased life expectancies and reduced infant deaths.

This growing world population means of course that there is not only an increased demand on wood and agricultural products, which is impacting forest areas, but it also means that there is more space needed for the people to live. There are still some indigenous people, who live in the forest and utilise their habitat to source their food and housing, but much of the human population lives nowadays in constructed buildings and does not solely rely on food, provided in their natural surroundings.

For many people wood is just a commodity, which has its value in providing a raw material for many of our products, and through this are providing also work and income for the populations in the countries, where the timber is sourced and manufactured. Like everything in the planet's natural system, trees and forests have a role, which not only benefits humans, but also other living beings/things. For example trees absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. They absorb water and evaporate it back into the atmosphere. Trees also provide food, shelter and shade for animals and plants in their surroundings. Clearing forests is taking this functionality out of the natural cycle and hence leading to problems like worse air conditions (less oxygen and more carbon dioxide), lack of food and shelter (impacting animal and plant species, which rely on the tree habitat) and changing climates (the ground is exposed to sun light and will dry out plus water is not released back into the atmosphere, which may also influence the temperatures).

The impact of the deforestation is severe. Beyond the natural functions mentioned above, the roots of trees provide also stability for the soil and protection from storms and floods. Without trees soil is easily washed away by water surges, and hence leads to land erosion and landslides. We have to ask ourselves whether a better forest management here in the UK and in other countries around the world could have prevented at least some of the floods and landslides, which we have seen around the globe, including here in England over the last few years (or even the last century).

An interesting aspect, I have found out during the research for this article, is that the world's largest producer of wood products is also leading the growth in planted forest. China experienced in 1998 devastating floods and recognised through this the role of the forest in view of flood control and soil protection. China has since then banned logging in river areas and began planting trees again.

In order to maintain their market lead in view of wood products, China is nowadays importing wood from neighbouring countries like Russia, Indonesia and Malaysia. This is leading to a dramatic loss of forest habitat in these countries. The wood import is partly done via legal sources, but unfortunately also via illegal ways; and as mentioned above the illegal ways include also deforestation of protected areas.

The impact of deforestation for native animal and plant species is significant, and leads for some of them to extinction, as they are not able to adapt. This is obviously not helped by the fact that former forest areas are often used as farmland or urban areas. This leads to an increased human/wildlife conflict when animals venture onto farms in search of food or simply because the last time they came, it was still natural habitat. Thus human/wildlife conflict is leading to the killing of animals.

The importance of the role, trees have within the natural system and the impact of deforestation is something more and more people realise, and official institutions like the UN are acting upon. The International Day of Forests is just raising awareness, but there is much we all can do to stop deforestation and start reversing its negative impact.

There is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which runs a forest certification scheme that helps consumers to identify products from well-managed forests and legally sourced wood. FSC certified forests must be managed with due respect for the environment, the wildlife and people, who live and work in them. The FSC symbol on wood and paper products, including packaging material, helps consumers to buy products, which are sourced responsibly with consideration for the environment.

Beyond wood products, we as consumers influence deforestation also by buying other products, including food and hygiene products. For example, about 50% of pre-packed products (bread, breadspread, biscuits, chocolate, soap, detergent, washing liquid, etc) contain palm oil, and most of this is sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia; leading to drastic forest clearance in these two countries. A way to reduce the negative impact on the forest areas in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia is either by trying to buy palm oil free products (see Ethical Consumer web page) or to buy products with the RSPO logo, which certifies that the products come from sustainable sources (see ZSL web page). In a similar way, we can make a positive impact by buying food products locally and wood products, including paper from sustainable sources (see FSC UK web page).

Deforestation is partly also due to wildfires, which many people think is out of our hands. This is unfortunately not the case as wildfires are often caused through careless actions by humans and also some traditional practices in the agricultural world. Examples of human causes for wildfires are the burning cigarette buds thrown carelessly on the ground, using fuel cookers or even starting campfires without consideration of the surroundings and its condition, starting fires to help in the harvesting process (e.g. was done with sugar cane fields in Australia, but has now been significantly reduced by the industry itself). All of these may and have caused wider, sometimes uncontrollable fires of forest areas. It destroys native habitat and also kills wildlife (and people).

The future of wildlife and planet earth is in our hands. People in all countries around the world need to act more responsibly to prevent fires and to preserve forests; and through this our environment and climate.

Information in this article was sourced from web pages of:
The UN
UK Forestry Department
People and the Planet
Earth Policy Institute
World Atlas
BBC Learning Zone
Woodland League
The Forest Project