You can only be encouraged by the tree planting bidding war going on between our politicians at the moment, I suppose. 30 million trees, 60 million trees, 700 million trees – hey – why not?* As a symptom of the electorate’s newly found enthusiasm for the environment it’s exciting though. It could – SHOULD – do a lot of good.
I’m not going to rehearse all the benefits of planting trees – they’re a given, for the sake of this blog. Since 2015 we’ve only planted 5 million trees, which sounds like a lot but is far short of the government’s target of 11 million up to 2020. We do need many more.
This suggests the first – most obvious – reason for scepticism. Will this planting get done, or will these targets suddenly become “aspirations”? Not only is there the cost of it, but there are many practical issues. Where will all these trees come from? The UK forest nursery industry has been devastated and is nowhere near capable of meeting this kind of demand. How are the folk owning the sites where they’re planted going to be compensated if they’re losing productive land? Where are all these trees going to go?
This is another issue. Planting in cities, great idea – but where are we going to plant 60 million trees (let alone 700 million!) without damaging existing landscapes, which are at least as valuable as mixed woodland? We have been planting commercial Sitka spruce plantations on peatlands, for example. This is complete madness. For starters, these areas are great at carbon sequestration – much better than woodland – which is why the Scottish Government is committed to restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030. Secondly, they help with flood mitigation; burning moorland and thence destroying blanket bogs in Yorkshire has contributed to recent flooding.
We don’t want to go planting any kind of trees in unimproved grassland either; this is attractive, important and relatively rare habitat, and good at sequestering carbon and controlling water runoff.
Another concern is that tree planting is often done badly, and there are very big differences between types of planting. I’ve written about these issues before; essentially we often end up with over-planted monocultures. Commercial conifer plantations have at best very low biodiversity value – often, depending on where they’re planted, they have a negative effect. I never see glades or clearings in mixed woodland schemes either; why not?
After the planting there’s the issue of management. Will this be budgeted for? I haven’t seen any figures for it, and it’s generally much more expensive than sourcing and planting the whips. They need protecting from deer and rabbits in particular, and although biodegradable guards are now available they will need checking. If using standard plastic guards these will need removing. Ideally, the base of plants should be kept clear of grass, brush and weeds. After a while you may need to thin out some trees.
I’m also sympathetic to the idea that many areas could be rewilded. Natural regeneration surely deserves to have an important role in any scheme to increase our stock of trees. It’s relatively cheap and will – by definition – provide appropriate and diverse woodland. And what about replanting and changing the way we manage hedges, by the way? Wouldn’t this be a much easier, cheaper and less contentious way of beneficial planting? I guess it’s not as dramatic or obvious as tree planting, though.
And as far as the politicians are concerned that’s rather the point of it. There’s surely an element of tokenism behind these tree planting pledges. It seems pretty gimmicky. It’s as if policy gonks suddenly realised they needed a splashy (sorry!) simple idea, as recent flooding has pushed the environment even further up the electorate’s concerns.
You might even be forgiven for thinking it’s the major policy on the environment for some politicians who don’t know any better themselves. I hope that tree planting doesn’t become a green figleaf, covering up inaction in other areas.
*Or, in Nigel Farage’s case billions, apparently.