Guest blog – Planting Trees by Ian Parsons

Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees. Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com

This is Ian’s eighteenth Guest Blog here (see The Climate Change Elephant, 11 October 2019; Reclaiming the name, 18 January 2019; Citizen Science by Olaf Lipur, 1 April 2019, Local tours for local people, 27 July 2018; Acceptability of Wildness, 16 JulyFeel Good Factor, 12 July; Whitebeam Spring, 14 March 2018; How red are Reds? 18 November 2017, A Question of Importance, 13 January 2017; Disturbing Conservation, 13 December 2016; Tree Blindness, 15 September 2016; Seeing the Wood for the Trees, 9 March 2017, Love Vultures – Ban Diclofenac, 27 July 2017, Building for Wildlife, 29 August 2017; Bird of the Year, 3 January 2018; A Recycled Argument, 12 January 2018The worst of times or the best of times?, 18 December 2018; ).

Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

Political Stratatrees

A tree’s a tree, how many do you need to look at?

It is not often that politicians enter into earnest conversation about trees, but in the lead up to the December election, trees were a hot topic for many a politician and for their parties as well. For me, it was pleasing to see trees being mentioned in all the political manifestos, I like trees as many of my other blogs on this site will testify, so to hear politicians talking about planting trees with such vigour was great.  Ironically, as they waxed lyrical on arboreal matters they prevented the expensive and long developed plans of the government’s own ‘tree department’ from coming to fruition and no one noticed the Forestry Commission’s 100th birthday in the midst of the campaign because they were prevented from publically celebrating it under civil service election time rules. I wonder how much the cancelled party cost the taxpayer and how many trees that money would have bought.

In the election campaign there were lots of political promises about how many trees were going to be planted, with hundreds of millions being promised (although no mention of where they were going to get the saplings from…) in more than one manifesto. Tellingly, the manifesto of the winning Conservatives was rather vague about the whole thing with nothing other than the usual platitudes being mentioned. Still, one of their ministers was regularly banging on about trees and how they were going to ensure that more were planted. The cynic in me would say that they were only doing so because they finally realised they needed to be seen to be doing something about the environment and climate change. Let’s face it, politicians don’t normally bother about trees. The quote at the top of the blog is from Ronald Reagan, when he was president of the United States, who was frustrated at attempts to stop lucrative clear felling of old growth forests. In our own country, the names of Oxleas Wood and the Oaks at Talaton in Devon spring to mind, more recently the street trees of Sheffield and the numerous trees along the route of the HS2 money pit, sorry, railway line, demonstrate the more typical political attitude to trees.

But enough of the cynicism, let’s take it at face value, the political parties that were vying for our votes were saying they were going to plant trees, lots of trees and that has to be a good thing. But what were they wanting to plant them for, what were their tree planting strategies and, more importantly, what is the current tree planting strategy of the new all powerful conservative government? 

I am going to play devil’s advocate here, but hopefully it will provoke a bit of thought.

We need a tree strategy for the country, if we are going to plant millions, even billions, of trees we need to know why we are planting them.  Why do we need to know?  Well, as I have said in my other tree related blogs here, trees are not a homogenous group, they are just plants that have evolved a similar dendrite form, they are all different from one another, in some cases very, very different, and these differences mean that different trees are better suited to different strategies and to different places.

There are many reasons to plant trees of course, but I am only going to look at three of them:

  1. As a response to the climate emergency
  2. As a timber resource
  3. As a conservation resource

These are three different reasons, and therefore I argue that they require three different strategies, planting vast numbers of trees without a clear strategy is not the most effective thing for us to be doing right now. The strategies can of course be combined where appropriate, but to look at them properly we need to look at them in isolation. We need to think about what exactly we are planting these trees for and then we need to act accordingly.  For the rest of this blog I am going to look at the first reason, as a response to the climate emergency, in future blogs I will look at the other two.

Politicians and the media now widely use the term climate emergency as opposed to the term climate change, this is good, it would, on paper, seem to acknowledge the urgency of the need for (political) action. The dictionary definition of the word emergency is ‘a state of things or a situation, that demands immediate attention to deal with it’ in other words, an emergency requires urgency.

In the election campaign the need to plant vast numbers of trees as a response to the climate emergency became a theme of the political platitudes that were banded about by all sides. There are regular news stories about how someone or some group is/are going to plant a forest to combat the climate emergency and whilst a lot of thought goes into these schemes and how they are promoted, little thought (deliberate provocation on my part) seems to go into the actual selection of trees to be planted.

Often, the main tree species selected for this required urgent response is the ‘English’ Oak Quercus robur (its commonly used name more characteristic of our view of the world rather than any actual fact; the tree is native across most of Europe and into Asia as well).  This species of Oak is a great tree, a tree very useful for many purposes, but it is not the best tree for an urgent emergency response, in fact it is one of the worst. Planting an Oak to combat the climate emergency is like having a small hand held fire extinguisher at a petrol station, it may be reassuring to look at, but in reality you are going to require something else when the proverbial hits the fan.

Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide as they grow, the quicker they grow, the quicker they store this greenhouse gas, the quicker they grow the more CO2 they absorb. The ‘English’ Oak grows slowly, therefore it absorbs CO2 slowly and in far less amounts than other trees, to be an effective emergency response to the climate emergency a tree needs to grow rapidly and not just upwards, it also needs to grow rapidly in volume too, as this is where the CO2 gets laid down and stored.  Long whippy species like the willows (Salix sp) may romp away upwards, but they don’t produce volume rapidly and therefore are also not the ideal tree for the job.

No, if we are going to be serious about planting trees to combat the climate emergency then we are going to have to look at a group of trees that many conservationists shudder at, conifers.  But that is why growing trees to combat the climate emergency requires a different strategy to planting trees to increase our conservation resource.  They are two different objectives.

Serried ranks of Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) blanketing the Flow country, row upon row of Corsican Pine (Pinus nigra var maritima) marching across lowland heathlands… The images conjured up in the minds of many when conifer planting is discussed are often very negative. But they are negative because of history, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, but to do so we need a clear strategy to govern our future climate emergency tree planting.

Bishop Pine (Pinus muricata) is a tree that I wager very few of you have heard of, in the wild it is an extremely rare native to the western coast of North America, in cultivation it could be the perfect urgent response to the emergency we are faced with.  I have seen these trees in some of the English forests that I worked in, they were in trial plots to see what potential they had as timber trees in this country. They grow before your eyes. Bishop Pine can grow two and a half metres a year, but they don’t just grow upwards they grow outwards as well, increasing in volume as rapidly as they do in height, when it comes to absorbing and storing carbon dioxide I can’t think of a more effective tree that will grow readily in this country (there may be other species and I would hope that Alice Holt are looking at these…).

The trial planting of Bishop Pine did not lead to them being planted as a timber crop, they are actually poor for this purpose, they grow too fast to produce good timber and they have a tendency to branch heavily which is poor for timber production although good for carbon storage.  I go back to my original point, we need to decide why we are planting trees and then develop effective strategies for each reason.  Growing trees to create a timber resource is different to growing trees to combat the climate emergency, they require different strategies.

I am not saying that every tree we now plant in this country has to be a Bishop Pine, I am saying that we need to decide why we are planting trees and then decide what trees are best suited for this purpose. There are much better tree species to be planted to build up a timber resource for the country and when it comes to creating a conservation resource, Bishop Pine doesn’t even come close. We need clear strategies, strategies that of course can be combined in large scale planting schemes, but strategies that are separate and reflect the reason for the planting in the first place.

Why not convert the manicured grass lawned landscapes of modern industrial estates (sorry, business parks) in to groves of carbon absorbing Bishop Pines, why not incorporate Bishop Pine into the planting schemes on roundabouts and along road embankments, plant them in towns and cities, in school fields (although their cones might make pine cone fights a little more dangerous…) and outside council offices and county halls. It won’t take much to come up with a sensible planting strategy for these trees, a strategy that also allows for the planting of slower growing trees to work alongside the rapidly growing pines, we don’t have to just plant one species to combat the climate emergency, but we do need to target which species we are going to choose if we are going to be serious about it.

A climate emergency by its very definition needs an urgent response, if we are to plant trees as a direct response to the emergency they need to start being effective urgently, they need to be taking CO2 out of the air in large quantities as soon as they are planted.  Planting oaks will remove some CO2, planting oaks isn’t wrong, but it is not the best tree planting to combat the climate emergency and that is why we need a clear strategy for the trees that we have been promised.

I look forward to seeing what this government does in terms of tree planting to combat the climate emergency, I hope they develop a clear strategy for it specifically and not a one size fits all type that tries to cover all bases. Whatever they decide they need to do it quickly, emergencies need urgent responses.

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18 Replies to “Guest blog – Planting Trees by Ian Parsons”

  1. If Bishop Pine can grow faster than others and out-compete them, why is it so rare in the wild?

    It's good to distinguish the reasons why we are planting trees.

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  2. I remember an article in the Independent years ago which advocated the clear felling of ancient forest in order that faster growing, better carbon absorbing young trees would take their place - Reagan would have been pleased. The writer said due to Climate Change we could no longer afford to have sacred cows like ancient forests - the irony being of course that he had made climate change into a sacred cow. So forests are chipped for biomass and cleared to grow biofuel - but somehow the environmental movement has forgotten to ask the public to drive smaller cars or take any responsibility for their impact in spite of a 'climate emergency', it can't be that much of an emergency then can it? Public involvement now means signing petitions and going on demos to tell politicians what bastards they are and everything is their fault and nothing ours.

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      1. filbert - you'll be saying the same of voting next - except that it isn't very good signalling.

        Not signing petitions and not going on demos is indolence signalling - I once heard.

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          1. That reply went to the wrong comment.

            On indolence - it is actually quite hard work maintaining a non-ovine stance and to avoid hearing such stuff it might be necessary to step outside the bubble

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    1. Hi Les,
      Just to be clear, I am not advocating the clearfell of the remnants of ancient woodland that we have left so that they can be replaced with Bishop Pine, I think they should be planted elsewhere as suggested in the blog. Nor am I saying that we should replace Oak with Bishop Pine either, rather that if we are to plant trees to rapidly remove CO2 from the air then we need to carefully select the trees that best fit the purpose.
      We need clear strategies in place that cover the different objectives and targets of tree planting, with clear strategies mistakes of the past can (hopefully) be avoided again.

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      1. Ian I didn't think you'd said that for a minute, I was making a point about us tying ourselves in knots with CC monomania when actually it's just a bloody byproduct of the environmental destruction happening right here and now with dreadful social consequences too. I believe that the annihilation of rain forest now is more pressing than how it might be affected by CC in the future - and of course if you halted that rain forest destruction then you'd cut CO2 emissions!!! However, forests have been cut down to save fossil fuels - one way we'll not have to worry about them being affected by CC I suppose, see what I mean?

        I understand your point about planting Bishop pine and I have to say the only thing it would really mean for certain is a drastic reduction in the scope for bringing back wildlife to urban areas and resulting opportunities for nature education. We could even start growing a selection of nut producing trees for a bit of an urban foraging. All of that lost to the Bishop pine...no thanks. Mind you if a pest or disease that affected that tree got into the country it would do very well indeed and for a bit might mean there'd be a lot of dead wood in urban areas although not perhaps the best variety for native wildlife.

        When the incontestable is given less importance than the speculative then we're being directed by what is little more than blind faith. Climate science is incredibly complex and the interactions and outcomes we can only guess at, using projections in those circumstances has to be an issue of guidance and informed discussion not lead to the type of dogma that leads to someone calling for ancient forest to be clear felled. A cure worse than the disease when the disease may, who really knows, only be a bit of a cold. Should we take a precautionary approach anyway? Not when that involves more harm than what we believe CC would cause.

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  3. Fourth reason to plant trees; as a recreational, and therefore health and wellbeing resource. Again may well lead to different choices to the other three.

    Trees are of course living organisms with their own agenda, I hope (but doubt) that all the politicians and policy makers know that. They reproduce on their own if allowed to, but I bet natural regeneration/rewilding won't be counted as part of the planting "target".

    Herald expensive scrub clearance to allow for trees to be planted on marginal land...

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  4. Like most trees that grow fast, Bishop Pine is a pioneer species fitting into the natural ecosystem of its range, a natural ecosystem that included periodic wildfires that cleared other vegetation allowing the dormant seeds of the pioneers to germinate. Unfortunately for the tree their natural range is a relatively small area of the western Californian coast, an area that has been vastly altered by us, the succession of habitats it requires is no longer available and they are now restricted to just seven sites.

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  5. It’s yet another great sensitive conservation idea from the Forestry Commission!

    It’ll give the grey squirrel a sense of being home from home – let’s get the chipmunk next?

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    1. I don't work for the Forestry Commission and haven't done for nearly ten years.
      The blog is about making informed choices in relation to tree planting with regards to the reasons the trees are planted in the first place. I was quoting the political parties in their election manifestos as to the reasons they wanted to plant trees, one of them banded around by the politicians was to 'fight the climate emergency'. I did explain this at the beginning of the blog, but perhaps the words I used were too big for you. Sorry.
      The blog is about the need for a clear strategy to meet the objectives of the planting, if we are going to plant trees to combat the climate emergency we need to plant trees that are going to absorb the maximum amount of CO2 in the shortest time and that is why I suggested the use of Bishop Pine as I believe it to be the tree that will do this. I might be wrong.
      You may be interested to know that the Grey Squirrel abundant in Britain doesn't occur anywhere near the native range of Bishop Pine and that it is an animal that prefers broadleaf trees as opposed to conifers, but then I am guessing that biological accuracy is not a strongpoint.
      The blog is about us not making sweeping gestures of tree planting without knowing what it is we actually want the trees to do. A bit like making sweeping statements without knowing the facts.

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  6. I note oaks are dismissed because they grow too slowly. Surely though it is wood density that is important and oaks may put on just as much weight as a conifer but that weight goes into a smaller volume producing a higher density, therefore the oak tree appears to grow more slowly, Similarly balsa wood has a large volume but a very low density and no doubt grows very quickly. What is important is the rate of absorption of CO2 for each tree species and we probably don’t have much data on that.
    I also think unless there is a great difference in the rate of absorption of CO2 native species should take precedence over non native ones for the benefit of our fauna.

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    1. Hi Alan,

      Thanks for the comment. The point I was trying to make is that if we are planting trees to combat a climate emergency then, because it is an emergency, the response has to be rapid and have immediate effect.
      Oaks do indeed absorb CO2 over their lifetime, and over this period may well absorb the same as a Bishop Pine over its lifetime (it might even be more). But in an emergency we need an immediate effect, ie we need to be removing large quantities of CO2 now in the next ten years rather than over a period of say 120 (the rough age when Oak starts to slow down its volume increment). Bishop Pine is a tree that grows extremely rapidly compared to other trees over that ten year period and will therefore absorb more CO2 immediately than species such as Oak. I did mention planting other, slower growing species as well as part of any strategy, but as an urgent emergency response we need the most rapid CO2 absorber that we can get. It would be great if there was a native species that could do this better than Bishop Pine, but I am not sure that there is one.

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  7. If, as I think likely, a general purpose planting would be favoured by government, I would opt
    for Norway Spruce, but only from personal experience, others may think differently.

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