Trees For Votes

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?

Eek! Planting Sitka across peatland

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.

Eek! Tree planting in unimproved grassland

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.

How Not To Plant “Woodland”

There’s a great and commendable enthusiasm about tree planting in the UK. We know the reasons why. Every year, especially when the floods come, people talk about the need for more trees. Tree planting might even be part of a new post Brexit agricultural settlement. We need to be careful about it, though.

There has been a great boom in tree planting in Ireland. Apparently forests covered less than 1% of the country a hundred years ago. That figure is now over 10% – still low. The government plans it to reach 18% by 2046. Hurrah! There’s a problem, though. This isn’t really woodland. The new planting consists of Sitka spruce plantations. Currently, only 2% of forest cover is mixed broadleaf woodland.

Is this an issue?

You bet.

plantation monocultureSitka spruce hails from the Pacific northwest. It’s not a great fit with local Irish ecology. It grows vigorously, and – as in the UK – advice is to plant at a tree per 2 square metres. Nothing grows beneath its dense stygian canopy. Unlike native broadleaf woodland, this monoculture needs fertilisers and pesticides. Plantations are springing up in bogs and across meadows. They might sequester carbon, they might have commercial value, but in biodiversity terms they’re… unhelpful.

Planting regimental ranks of broadleaf trees isn’t ideal either. Dense woodland, with no sense of the effects of what ecologists call succession, is sub-optimal. We need lower density mixed species planting, with gaps. This could be achieved by using a wider range of native species and by more extensive selective felling in any planting scheme’s formative stages.

woodland pastureContrary to earlier thinking, the chances are that dense forests didn’t cover Europe before iron age man started clearance work. More likely is that grazing livestock, like auroch and boar, chomped and rootled clear areas. These enabled much greater diversity of tree species, along with other flora and fauna. You can imagine Oaks establishing themselves among stands of Blackthorn, then spreading out. Wildflowers growing in sunnier meadows. Mottled sunlight through the canopy playing on a rich understory. More managed landscapes used to mirror this approach, which is becoming talked about again through the rewilding movement.

We’re surrounded by vestigial “wood pasture” in this pocket of Somerset. I’d love to see it restored. We should put a commercial value on that, payable from the public purse if necessary, as (I hope) we will – finally – do for planting for flood prevention.

I’m probably just cavilling about tree planting styles. Planting rates in England continue to be disappointing. Management of many schemes is poor and deer wreck others. England only has similar tree cover to Ireland. The government’s (unfunded) targets look like pie in the sky.

We need more trees, in a hurry. We should, nonetheless, get maximum value from them. They have to be the right trees, planted and managed in the right way.

When Tree Planting Sucks

On the radio today I was gratified to hear Oliver Rackham talk about the dangers of the globalization of the tree business, as I blogged about here nearly a month ago. It was also interesting to hear him talk about some other less than positive aspects of the recent fashion in the UK for tree planting, which has meant we now have as many trees as there were in the Middle Ages. Isn’t this a good thing? Well – er – not necessarily, as I’ve increasingly thought too.

1. There is always a tremendous hurry and lack of adequate cash about grant aided planting which means trees are often imported, increasing the danger of spreading pathogens and parasites and reducing the genetic variation of the plant population.

2. Inappropriate tree species are routinely introduced. There’s a “one size fits all” mentality about native tree selection, which seems very odd. In the world of wildflower plants, which shares many of the same problems, we always try to supply seed mixes appropriate to the sites where they will be sown, for example.

3. The groups of trees which are planted do not constitute woods. In particular, no-one bothers to establish an understory, which means they have less value for biodiversity than they should do. Demand for woodland bulbs is amazingly small and their purchase is never covered by woodland planting grants, for example.

4. This issue is compounded by planting densities being too high, which blocks out any light reaching the plants on the ground.

5. We sometimes establish these plantations, with limited ecological value, where more interesting habitat previously existed.

I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the Ash tree crisis throws up an opportunity to discuss some of these issues. I’m sure tree planting IS a good thing, but we need to review how we’re doing it.