If trees defined the state of a nation, Britain would be in pretty poor shape. The good news is that there are more trees today than at any time in the last 100 years. But Britain remains one of the least wooded places in Europe, and while new trees are being planted, ancient woodland continues to be lost. The UK government has announced ambitious tree planting targets to increase forest cover as part of its climate action. Not all trees are born equal, however, and what sounds simple on paper is much more complicated in reality.
Woodland covers about 13 per cent of the UK (the EU average is 35 per cent). Half of this is predominantly native tree species; the rest is commercial conifer plantations. This distinction is important. Older woodlands with a mixture of native trees are home to more wildlife and plants than plantations. They are also much better at sequestering carbon and play a bigger role in helping to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the face of poor management, damage from deer grazing, invasive species from overseas and other challenges, many of these trees are not doing well — only 7 per cent of Britain’s native woodlands are in good ecological condition.
In May 2021 George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, promised that the government would treble tree planting in England to meet a UK-wide target of 30,000 hectares a year by 2025 — the equivalent of at least 90 million trees. Planting masses of trees would seem a fairly uncomplicated plan but Beth Brook, chief executive of the Heart of England Forest, a conservation charity, explained that the reality is anything but simple.
Reports from the National Audit Office (NAO) and the MPs of the Environment Select Committee have, this month, questioned whether the government is capable of delivering on its promises. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must “overcome significant challenges” to hit hugely ambitious targets, said the NAO. The committee highlighted various issues, not least the need to plant the “right tree in the right place”.
When I spoke to Brook over the phone, she was forthright about what needs to change. “Pretty much rubbish, down at the bottom,” is her opinion on Britain’s forests today. “There are pockets where we have done things,” she said, but in general planting and looking after trees has not been the nation’s forte in recent decades. Heart of England Forest, along with other not-for-profit initiatives, is leading the charge to change this. The charity, set up in 2003, has planted two million trees in its forest, 7,000 acres (2,833 hectares) of land of new, mature and ancient woodland in Warwickshire and Worcestershire — the plan is to eventually cover 30,000 acres.
“We were doing things on our own and then the government jumped on the bandwagon,” Brook said. “We’re very pleased by it, but it is easy to have a manifesto to plant a billion trees.” The difficult part is making it happen.
First, Brook insisted, there should be more clarity around what is meant by planting huge amounts of trees. “Can we think about mosaics, encourage collaboration, buffer fragmented habitats, not plant random trees in a school field and say it was done?” The focus should be on, as it is in her charity, “creating resilient and sustainable forests” that will exist “in perpetuity” rather than trees that are planted to “tick a box”. By mosaics, she means wood pasture that includes grazing land, grasslands, shrubs, veteran trees and decaying wood. Together, these create homes for a rich mixture of wildlife, fungi, lichens and insects. At least 95 per cent of Britain’s flower-rich meadows have been lost and a mosaic approach could go some way towards restoring them.
Brook’s criticisms of the government tally closely with the findings of the NAO and the select committee. She called for Westminster support to massively boost the tree nursery industry to ensure there are enough of the right saplings to go round and she underlined the industry’s “huge skills gap”.
The whole process, from purchasing a piece of land to being allowed to plant the first tree, is also far too drawn out, said Brook. “You buy the land, then it takes one to three years to get permission to plant. You have to consult everybody. If we can’t do it, who can? We shouldn’t have environmental shortcuts, but this is our bread and butter, our expertise. Does every permission request need to go round three government departments?”
Another bugbear for her is the plastic waste generated in the name of planting trees. “New trees need to be guarded: we don’t want deer or hares nibbling them, or them blowing over in the wind,” she said. “But we have to use plastic tree guards as there is nothing else on the market at the scale we need. Some say they are biodegradable, but they break down into micro-plastics in the soil. The government needs to ban them. It is absolute madness.”
This week (on 22 March) Eustice reaffirmed the government’s commitment to increasing tree cover, insisting it would “plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year in the UK by the end of this parliament, backed up by over £500 million of funding”. Only time will tell if these plans get tangled in bureaucracy or became an integral part of the government’s policy to increase nature and act on climate change. Whatever happens, Brook will be keeping a close eye on proceedings and continuing to push for root-and-branch reform.