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Tree Planting and the Climate Emergency: Eight Lessons from the Past.

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Everyone agrees that we need more trees. Trees for wildlife, trees to stop climate change, trees for people to enjoy, trees for people to use. The government has recently launched a new grant and incentive scheme to help farmers and landowners create new woodlands, but many people are anxious about making mistakes and ensuring that we ‘put the right tree in the right place’. Is there anything we can learn from tree planting schemes from the recent and not so recent past?

Planting Saplings (Photo: Matt Jackson)

In the UK we had a boom in broadleaf tree planting during the 1990’s and early noughties. For several years over 30,000 ha of new woodlands were planted on farmland, mostly in small broadleaf plantations from 2 to 20 hectares in size. Grants from the Forestry Commission and Defra were sufficiently generous to persuade landowners to plant up surplus or inaccessible farmland with trees. Additional supplements to create ‘community woodlands’ enabled local authorities and wildlife charities to create hundreds of new woodlands with public access. Today these woodlands are mature and appreciated by thousands of visitors every day.

Bit by bit the planting grants were reduced and made ever more complex through targeting and increased bureaucracy. Not surprisingly the rate of new planting has slowed to a tiny trickle, so what have we learnt over the past 30 years?

Lesson One: Grant support needs to be set at the right level to compete with other land use options. Set at the right level, we can achieve the required planting targets.

Lesson Two: The application process must be user friendly. The Countryside Stewardship system is almost impossible to enter without specialist knowledge and leaves many landowners at risk of being unable to meet large numbers of contractual conditions. Landowners will not sign up for over complex or prescriptive schemes which ask them to take on all the long-term risks.

Lesson Three: The previous scheme was over simplistic. You planted your trees; you got your grant. This led to planting projects which were entirely grant led. By using cheap (often imported) planting stock, insufficient protection and reducing maintenance to a minimum, many landowners were able to undertake the work at very low net cost. The result has often been low value woodlands due to poor establishment rates, trees with no timber value and high rates of deer and rabbit damage. Any new scheme must incentivise good design, high quality planting and adequate protection.

Seedlings being well protected from herbivores within a new plantation (Photo: Stephen Lees)

Lesson Four: The Forestry Commission have always insisted that grant aided schemes should have high stocking rates with most trees being long lived timber species, even on schemes where wildlife and biodiversity were the principal objectives. This policy restricted design and habitat opportunities, it also restricted species choice which has reduced the woodlands resilience to both disease and climate change.

Lesson Five: Many of the new woodlands have been devastated by deer and grey squirrels. Deer numbers have also increased steadily over the past 30 years, so wildlife management needs to be central to any new grant scheme with adequate support and co-ordination. This should not be an option. Why should public money be wasted and wildlife habitats trashed due to sentimentality?

Young trees showing damage caused by rutting deer.

Lesson Six: Some people are suggesting that we can leave land to ‘rewild’ by itself. No need for tree planting, shelters, weeding or fences. This is possible in a few locations but not many. I see acres of bracken clad slopes which have not changed in 50 years. Our countryside is no longer blessed with herds of marauding wild aurochs. We need to give it a helping hand.

Yes, we can use fewer single use plastic shelters but how can it be more environmentally friendly to bring in a choir mulch mat all the way from India, compared to three years herbicide application to less than 20% of the total site.

Lesson Seven: Significant amounts of Countryside Stewardship grant aid have been taken up with the aim of supporting pheasant and partridge shooting. An exclusive activity, often with adverse ecological impacts resulting from the large-scale release of exotic poultry. Future grant aid needs to achieve a much wider range of ‘public goods’ based on a thorough evaluation of ecosystem services. Our understanding of ecology, hydrology and soil science have increased enormously over the past 30 years and we now have a wide range of effective tools with which to assess sites and improve long term habitat design. We can embrace the principles of ‘rewilding’ and incorporate keystone species and livestock into our long-term woodland plans.

A pair of Beavers (Castor fiber), a key stone species recently re-introduced to Britain (Photo: Philip Price)

Lesson Eight: We are a small and crowded island. Don’t underestimate the demand for countryside recreation and people’s eagerness to pay towards its cost.

To learn more about the new Government grant see our previous blog post by Stephen Lees, visit the England Woodland Creation Offer page, or download the Forestry Commissions Design Guide.

Simon Humphreys

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