Theresa May's tree planting can't hide the crisis facing the UK's ancient woodland

The government's environmental push risks missing the wood for the trees.

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Last week I paid £15 to dedicate a tree to my friend’s new baby, via The Woodland Trust website. His arrival in this chaotic world made me think of all the ways I wished it was more perfect for him: less polluted, more certain to be full of “dappled things”; more caring.

After browsing the trust's different options, I settled on a tree in a new native forest being planted at Heartwood near London. Photos of the site suggest that the plastic-bound saplings are still very much in their infancy but I liked the idea of them growing old as he does. As the Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.”

So I was pleased to hear that Theresa May is thinking along similar lines. On Sunday, in a prelude to this week's historic release of the “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, she announced that the government will help create a new “Northern Forest”; a “vast ribbon of woodland” that will stretch from coast to coast between the cities of Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

This is a big win for forestry campaigners. The Woodland Trust and The Community Forests Trust have carefully developed the project together, and hope it will deliver major benefits – from flood reduction to increased biodiversity.

According to the director of the Mersey Forest Trust, Paul Nolan, the new £5.7m of Defra funding is a vital first step towards meeting the scheme’s full, £500m, target. “It’s a good start and we’ve got 25 years to make the case for further money and support,” he told the New Statesman.

Yet while children still grow up with tales steeped in trees, Britain's real-world woods - our living, breathing capsules of sylvan time - are in crisis.

Just 2 per cent of the UK has tree-cover dating to 1600 or earlier and the Woodland Trust believes the overall decline to be so bad that England is entering a state of “deforestation”. At Kew Gardens, researchers are resorting to preserving endangered species in seed banks.

This alarming situation contains a warning about the wider battle waging between environmentalists and planners. It raises questions about what trees, and nature more widely, are worth and whether their value - in the most fecund sense of that word - can ever be fully measured at all.

It is a concern that commentators and NGOs have raised in the last few days, cautioning that any new tree planting must not be wielded as a form of compensation for (or a distraction from) the trees being lost to the government’s development plans.

“It’s a supreme irony that the current routing of HS2 threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham. We need new forests and ancient woodlands - not one or the other,” said Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Zylva in a statement on Sunday.

For James Cooper of the Woodland Trust, the UK’s ancient forests should be considered “irreplaceable”, like the Cathedrals that they are so often compared to, and protected with the same level of care.

But unlike the protection provided for our built heritage, the government’s present National Planning Policy Framework allows developers to destroy ancient trees if they can demonstrate “sufficient need”.

As long as this loophole remains in place, the next best option is to ensure that any lost woodland is replaced with the highest possible ratio of new planting. For HS2, Natural England has supported a proposed ratio of 30:1 - but Cooper believes that only a 5:1 ratio is being delivered at present (though says this will have nothing to do with the proposed new Northern Forest).

Fracking too is a concern. Just this week, the West Sussex County Council approved fracking firm Cuadrilla’s application to test the flow of oil at Balcombe. Friends of the Earth has also revealed that, in Sherwood Forest, Ineos has sought and received permission for seismic surveys, despite public assurances to the contrary.

It is in this wider context that we should listen to May and Michael Gove announce their (overdue) “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, which it is hoped will suggest new solutions for everything from soil decline, to plastic pollution, to climate change.

One leafy shadow already cast over the announcement, however, is the fact the government backtracked on advice for ancient woodland protection, changing a section of the “Standing Advice” it issues to developers. It had previously advised a 50m “buffer zone” as an appropriate mitigation measure around ancient or veteran trees, but now only a minimum of 15m.

Another is that organisations like the Woodland Trust still, despite repeated lobbying, have no reliable data on the condition of the UK’s ancient woods. Those datasets which do exist are “not fully maintained”, and local planning decisions are not centrally updated, the Trust says.

Without greater clarity, ambition and tools to measure progress, the government risks missing the woods for the trees on its environmental policy – and not just for forests.

India Bourke is an editor at AFP Asia Pacific and was previously environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman