Guest blog: Planting trees (2) 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 nineteenth Guest Blog here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

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

Without repeating too much of what was said in the introduction to part one, the political parties in the recent general election all mentioned the need to plant lots and lots of trees.

I argued in that introduction that we needed a clearly defined strategy for the millions (if not billions) of trees that were promised. Trees are planted for different reasons and therefore, I argued, there is a need for different strategies for different objectives.  The three objectives that were mentioned in the manifestos were planting trees to combat the climate emergency, to build up a timber resource and to build up a conservation resource. There are lots more that we could think of I am sure, but I am going to concentrate on these three, very different, objectives.

Part one looked at a strategy for combating the climate emergency and this blog, part two, will look at a strategy for building up a timber resource. As with the first part, I have written this to provoke, because when it comes to trees, it always amazes me how complacent we are about them and their vast differences to one another when it comes to how they can fit our objectives. I should also reiterate (just in case you haven’t read the bit at the top about me) that I do not work for the Forestry Commission and haven’t done so for some time.

Forestry is often a dirty word, mentioned with disdain by many who live on the greener side of life. Yes, there have been some very serious errors in the past in relation to forestry in this country and perhaps these errors are still ongoing, but surely that is a reason to have a new clearly defined strategy for building up a timber resource (basically forestry) if we are talking of planting lots of trees for this purpose.

When I worked as a ranger for the FC, I was invited to a party at a house held by a warden for a large national NGO. It was mentioned that I worked for the dark side, a reference to my employer and nothing to do with Darth Vader. I contemplated this point as we all sat out on the decking (conifer) in his garden, we were sitting on garden furniture (tropical hardwood) and looking out at his garden and shed (conifer) surrounded by a high fence (conifer). Behind us the back door (tropical hardwood) opened in to the kitchen complete with its work tops (conifer), its kitchen units (conifer), its table and chairs (conifer). Through the internal door (conifer) was the lounge complete with sofas (conifer) and bookshelves (conifer) replete with books (conifer). The coffee table (conifer) had a number of glossy magazines (conifer and china clay) artfully arranged on it. Up the stairs (conifer) there were yet more internal doors (conifer), more books (conifer) and a cardboard box (conifer) of disposable nappies (conifer) in the bathroom with its toilet seat (conifer) and paneled in bath (conifer). The bedrooms had nice furniture, wardrobes (conifer), a dressing table (conifer) and of course beds (conifer).

It was a fairly modern house, certainly post war, its internal stud wall batons, its ceilings, its floors, its roof joists, the supports the tiles were attached to, were all conifer.  I would hope you can see the point I am trying to make.

There is a well known saying about people living in glass houses, when it comes to forestry that saying could be changed to just people living in houses.  It is easy to criticise forestry, it is also, I would suggest, hypocritical for most of us to do so, as we are the consumer driving the market and the market is very much for cheap conifer timber that is grown commercially in what is known as forestry.  All of us have bought it, it is in all of our homes, you may even be reading this and getting hot under the collar sat on a chair at a table or a desk all of which are forestry products.

The simple fact is, we in Britain love forestry grown timber, we can’t get enough of it. We consume more timber products per capita than virtually any other nation, yet we hardly grow any of it ourselves, we import it in vast quantities, in 2015 we spent £7,500,000,000 on importing timber products.  We are the third biggest importer of timber products in the world.  Aside from the tropical hardwoods, that are still imported for our nice dining tables, our plywood, our garden furniture etc. the majority of the timber we import is sawn softwood (timber from conifer plantations). In 2015 we imported 6,300,000 cubic metres of it.  To quote the wisdom of Weller, Foxton and Buckler, the public gets what the public wants. And we, undeniably, want forestry.

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You might not like that, but it is true.  Because it is true, it emphasises the need for having a clearly defined strategy if we are going to be planting trees to build up a timber resource.  Over the last few decades successive governments have sold off large chunks of the public forestry estate, happy to stop producing it ourselves and seemingly content at importing the timber we need from other countries, so why are politicians suddenly mentioning planting trees to increase the timber resources?

It may come as a shock to learn that politicians aren’t as stupid as they often seem. You may have noticed that we are leaving the European Union (it was a news story that got a bit of coverage recently…), the politicians are aware of this and are also aware of where 92% of our sawn softwood imports come from. How did you guess? Yes, the EU.  The government is committed to building millions of new houses over the next twenty or so years, new houses that will use vast quantities of sawn softwood timber – virtually all of the 6,300,000m³ of imported sawn softwood goes to the building trade. Hence why politicians are suddenly talking about increasing the timber resource.

Basically, to cut a very long story short, we need forestry to supply the timber we consume in vast amounts, we either grow it ourselves, where we are able to control how it is grown, harvested and transported, or we import it from other countries where we are unable to control how it is grown, harvested or transported.

It is surely preferable and much more sustainable to grow some of this timber in our own country and therefore I hark back to the point of this blog. We need a clearly defined strategy for planting trees that will increase our timber resource to ensure that it is done in the best possible way.  Growing trees for timber is very different to growing trees for wildlife and (as argued in part one) for combating the climate emergency. To grow good quality timber you need to select the right trees for the right conditions that will supply the right end product. The right end product for us is sawn softwood, i.e. we need to be growing conifers.  Hardwoods do not produce the timber, or the other products derived from it, that we need or use, if they did we would be using them.

Unfortunately in Britain we are severely limited when it comes to the number of native conifers that we have, with only Scots Pine producing viable timber and this species’ ability to grow productively depends totally on the conditions in which it is grown. It is very specific in what it requires in soil, climate etc to produce a viable end product. Those of you who garden will know that your garden will grow really good examples of some plants, but not others. Trees are just plants, and to produce good quality timber that we can use as a resource, they have to be in the right place for them and not necessarily us.

We automatically have an aversion to large numbers of trees that aren’t native to this country, but we need to see trees planted for timber as a crop, just like we see wheat, potatoes and sunflowers, none of which are native to Britain.  Agricultural land could well be a good place to grow the timber we need, agroforestry could be a very good way of combining timber and food production. I don’t know, but I do know that if we are really going to plant millions of trees to increase our timber resource, we rapidly need a new specific strategic plan to ensure that we not only meet that objective, but that we also do it properly. Just planting a load of trees into the ground with the vague idea that they are increasing our timber resource is not going to work

This plan needs to be in place already, it isn’t, timber takes decades to grow and we are already in the process of leaving the trade agreement that supplies us with most of our forestry products…

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23 Replies to “Guest blog: Planting trees (2) by Ian Parsons”

  1. If trees are replanted where trees have been harvested and the timber in houses and household is considered as a carbon sink then is the problem that we just don't like the look of it or have I missed something.

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  2. Presumably trees which are the best at CO2 absorption are the worst as habitat for our native fauna. Probably the same can be said of trees grown for timber. So what are the chances we get enough trees to replace the trees we cut down hundreds of years ago?

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  3. Just a naïve ecological point/question - might it be better to allow the trees to grow in or near their native home range, so that the native wildlife can make use of them, and then ship the harvested product to where it is needed? Bulk shipping costs are now extremely low.
    Transplanting (what should be) whole ecosystems to remote parts of the world which they then occupy for decades merely to be nearer the point of end use strikes me as odd.

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  4. Great blog, Ian. The endless harping on about things that happened 30 years ago has become sheer laziness - and has left much of the conservation lobby in a poor position to respond to the tree planting frenzy - a frenzy that as you rightly point out it's vital for professional forestry to moderate and manage. For me, the big challenge - and its one where some conservationists seem themselves to have gone over to the dark side in the 'sharing or sparing' debate over farming - is to create real forests, not single-purpose plantations. I'm strongly opposed to single purpose energy crops whether trees, willows or oilseed rape. They simply replicate or exacerbate our disastrous intensive agriculture which has done far more damage to our wildlife than forestry ever did. Yes, we should be planting more conifers but in mixed woodland - not just trees but also open space, and, as you point out so clearly the trees we plant must have a clear purpose - outcome, not target led policy. So some trees may be planted primarily for slowing the flow to prevent flooding, and I hope lots will be planted primarily for people around our towns and cities - as a mixture of different species both conifer and broadleaved.

    Just how real the conifer/broadleaved divide is away from the armchair experts, in yesterdays Guardian the illustration of the damage HS2 will do is a very nice stand of continuous cover Western Red Cedar in Forestry England's Bernwood Forest.

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  5. I agree with you up to a point about the need for three strategies. But with limited land available for new woodland there is also likely to be a need to combine objectives - especially for climate change and conservation/recreation. Though maybe there is an argument that the climate emergency is so severe that conservation objectives simply have to make way in order to plant the fastest growing trees, even if they are poor for wildlife. I hope we're not quite at that stage yet by perhaps we are.

    There are parallels with the land sharing/sparing debate in relation to farming. Do you maximise production (carbon eating and timber producing trees) in some areas to try to free up land for high quality native woodland. Or do you go for a compromise that tries to met all three objectives but requires the use of significantly more land? What is better, smaller areas of high quality conservation woodland or larger areas that are not so good for wildlife but still of some value?

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  6. Hi Ian. You correctly point out that we consume large volumes of timber and few if any of us avoid doing so. If we are to use the stuff we have to accept that it has to be supplied from somewhere which may mean either importing it or growing our own or a mixture of the two. Wherever it is grown there will be environmental impacts and in some instances these will be worse with imported timber and in some cases not as bad. Ideally we would get our timber from wherever it has the lowest impact wherever that is but if we accept the premise that we need to substantially increase the amount of commercial timber growing in the UK (and I would point out that Brexit is very unlikely to mean that it is no longer possible to purchase it from the EU though prices may be affected) we will certainly want to do this in a way that is as wildlife friendly as possible and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    No-one would wish to see a return to the days of blanket bog being ploughed and drained and over-planted with huge mono-cultural blocks of exotic conifers so where will these trees go? You refer to farmland and make the valid point that wheat, potatoes and so on are also exotic species but we are told we also need to maintain production of food. It is already a challenge (that we are failing to meet) to make modern food production compatible with the continued presence of a diverse flora and fauna in the countryside and if we start to make forestry compete for land with food production this is likely to put increased pressure on those marginal areas where wildlife seems to be clinging on best.

    I appreciate that the aim of your post is to ask what exactly we as a society want from all the trees the politicians have promised us and to get people thinking about the implications of this for the kinds of trees we plant and where they should be planted. Of course its not down to you to provide all the answers but we need to consider not just how we might increase our timber output but also how this can be achieved in a manner that is compatible with maintaining biodiversity. Perhaps this is something you envisage for another blog in the series but if not perhaps you could give your thoughts.

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    1. Hi Jonathan and Ian,
      Excuse the joint reply, but you are both doing exactly what I hoped people would do when reading these blogs and that is to start thinking about all these platitudes about tree planting and asking very good and, at times very difficult to answer, questions.
      To be honest, I don't have the answers, I have ideas, I am sure we all have, these blogs are basically me airing some of these ideas to provoke debate and, excuse the pun, plant a few seeds.
      At the moment I feel that we (and I am being very general here) see tree planting as a panacea for all our problems and that by simply planting trees everything will be ok. But I don't see how this can work without having specific strategies that identify the outcomes we actually want from the trees that we are, apparently, going to plant.
      I agree that we can combine strategies, I would hope that we would, but for the purpose of these blogs I am deliberately trying to keep them separate to illustrate the different objectives from the three main reasons banded around during the election.
      I am in the midst of writing the third blog now, after that I will try and write a fourth that addresses some of the issues raised by the first three and I will certainly try to build your comments in to this. Competition for land is a serious issue, which is why I think we need these strategies now, before we start planting all these trees, I don't think we can continue with an uncoordinated approach to tree planting, we need to be joined up in our thinking, not just about tree planting but land use in general.
      Growing trees takes a long time and I have a feeling writing the fourth blog will too! Thanks for your comments, I look forward to more on the third blog.

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  7. The usual over-consumption and over-population destroying the world in other words. What proportion of the wood items that are purchased end up in landfill within a year or even five years? (Or even are chipped and composted etc.? Wood that doesn't end up in the landfill still uses up land to grow it.)

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    1. Brilliant!!! There was total avoidance in looking at how demand can be reduced rather than slavishly and disastrously meeting it. How much of the virgin fibre used to make fluffy toilet rolls could be made from waste paper? The wood work top mentioned in the post can these days be made from (predominantly) recycled glass a better alternative than granite too. There's absolutely no need to use tropical hardwoods for garden furniture - and many outdoor applications for wood can use recycled plastic instead - there are millions and millions of tonnes of it already in the environment that need to be extracted and for which there should be a better use than landfilling or incineration. Do we really need paper magazines anymore when they can be sent electronically? There's one hell of a lot of scope for reducing consumption that should be scrutinised before we look at how best to produce what we really need. Reprocessing 'waste' material creates more jobs too than the increasingly mechanized extractive industries. A considerable amount of what we buy/consume is actually shite that's just to separate us from our disposable income.

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      1. Les, I think you missing the point of this series of blogs. They are in response to the politicians saying they are going to plant trees for the three objectives the blogs are about. I am saying that because the objectives are different they need different strategies.
        The blog is not about 'slavishly and disastrously' meeting the demand for timber it is about how we need a strategy for the politicians' proposed planting of trees to increase our timber resources. They are wanting to plant them, so I am saying let's get it right (for all three objectives)by having a good sound strategy in place.
        We of course should reduce our consumption of everything, but that is not what these blogs are about. They are about the idea that if we are going to plant trees, we need to have clear objectives and strategies in place first.

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  8. There's a reason that most home grown softwood goes for paper making.

    It's because it isn't much use for anything else. Probably because the climate is too mild and the trees too densely packed to grow decent timber.

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    1. Completely wrong. In 2018 we harvested 11,400,000 tonnes of softwood timber in Britain, of that only 500,000 tonnes of it went for paper production. That's not 'most' of our homegrown softwood, it's less than 5%.
      Never mind the truth though...

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      1. That's still quite a lot of paper though and how much of it was used for over packaging, instead of recycled fibre, for making magazines that could be sent electronically.......

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      2. Thank you Mr Parsons. It's good to get some accurate facts from someone who knows. But then I suspect mr dubious isn't very interested in the truth. His/her posts never give that impression anyway.

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      3. I stand corrected on the quantity used for paper. But the point remains: the quality of timber from commercially grown UK softwoods is poor.

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  9. "... but that we also do it properly"

    Yes. It is a serious mistake, imho, to limit the diversity of managed repopulations both between and within species. Reductive choices are often made for commercial and/or logistics reasons - contracts often being a race to the bottom - but put the investment at high risk of damage from insect and plant disease epidemics.

    Lack of within-crop diversity is not just a risk for forestry, where the tech exists to produce squillions of clonal treedlings using cell culture - with fastest growing clones favoured - but for all commodity crops on which we are reliant. For food staples this numbers the grand total of 3-7 globally, depending on whether you go beyond temperate cereals, and there are pathogen variants like Wheat Black Stem Rust Ug99 that are capable of producing a pandemic, given a following wind.

    "For food security reasons we will limit the seed supply of our highly successful dominant variety" - said Nobody, ever.

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  10. Yes, firstly the vast majority of conifer timber goes into construction grade sawn products - the idea that it's inferior quality is utter rubbish. The only thing we don't compete well with is fine joinery uses - Scandinavian timber is better because it grows slower and has tighter rings. To put it in perspective, the final clearfell of a Sitka Spruce or Douglas Fir stand which has been well thinned produces 80-90% logs suitable for sawn timber. Over the rotation as whole it will be well over 50%.

    What is also rarely realised is that the recycling of used timber products is probably amongst the most advanced and comprehensive of any product - certainly way, way ahead of plastics. And a fantastic example - South West Wood Products - can be seen in operation from the Avalon hide a Ham Wall - grinding up all sorts of rubbish like scrapped kitchen units for re-use.

    The other key issue which is only starting to be understood is embedded carbon - steel and concrete consume enormous amounts of carbon in their production and, slightly to the surprise even of foresters, the biggest carbon benefit is the saving in using wood compared to other materials. And, of course, you'll be hoping that the wood that holds your house up is going to last a lot longer than it takes to grow the next crop of timber trees, locking up carbon for the long term.

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    1. ' the final clearfell of a Sitka Spruce or Douglas Fir stand which has been well thinned produces 80-90% logs suitable for sawn timber.'

      And how does that sawn timber break down by grade compared to imported timber from countries where the trees occur naturally?

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  11. One of the more enjoyable aspects of this farm is to show people around; sometimes it’s a bit of PR, more likely it’s official wildlife organizations. Out of all the organizations that have been here, I can honestly say that the one response I was most despondent with was the Forestry Commission – in fact they make NE seem positively competent. I’ll repeat what I said.

    In my opinion, “The Forestry Commission over the last 100 years has been the sole purveyor of the wanton industrial genocide of Britain’s Forests.”

    People don’t like it when I critisize those sweet little wildlife organizations, I’m a nasty, vindicated person, what they forget is I get to see and analyze them up close. This blog is critical of farmers, by people who’s only land management experience is planting tomatoes in a grow bag. No wildlife organization or farm should be immune from forensic scrutiny or objective reasoning. If I swapped places, then that person too would come to the same conclusions as myself, and maybe more vocal.

    I was please to read your second piece admitting getting things wrong, that’s more than any others do admit too, but then again it’s not their money, their land or even their responsibility they’re playing around with, they can simply walk away. The faults, mistakes and financial cock-ups and there are many, simply don’t get into the public domain, if they did, no one would ever write a cheque again.

    We ‘do’ conservation for the wrong reason, – it’s financially beneficial – individually, and organizationally, – salaries, lucrative pensions, early retirement, big fat grants and subsidies, land acquisition for the liability of the balance sheet, etc.

    In your first blog you wrote about your oven ready solution for global Co2, that of planting a quick growing non native conifer around the place – this is lunacy, at first I thought it a spoof, climate change is an incredibly complexed issue, and anyone who proposes such simple solutions is almost certainly not in possession of all the relevant facts and data, and probably missing some marbles. Then the penny dropped you were one of the ‘apostles’ which included the evangelistic Monbiot’s dioptric schizoid man in the lamentable pretentious ‘People’s Manifesto’.

    What you and dear old Georgie boy seem to have forgotten is that everything in nature is connected for a reason, it’s been designed that way, fortunately not by human hands. We should learn from our past mistakes, fitting non-indigenous square pegs in round holes doesn’t work, other than financially, if you want to start playing God – do it on your own land; The Almighty’s a hard act to follow!

    Your second piece is more what I was expecting and it just confirms everything, that profitability matters, and you can dress it up in all the conservancy PR twaddle you like, the bottom line is individual and business profit.

    The frightening thing about this scenario is the person that replaces you at the Forestry Commission, will have exactly the same outlook for his or her career and this destruction will continue under the guise of conservation.

    PS, paper pulp is bleached because it’s turns brown, recycled paper is about as environmentally friendly as bleaching your loo.

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    1. It’s so difficult trying to have a sensible debate in the face of such gratuitous nastiness.

      Well done Ian P for airing a very important debate but let’s avoid the ad hominem bit.

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      1. Well said, John. It's notable that the post from Thomas Bickerton doesn't contain a single fact in rebuttal of any of the points put forward by Ian. It's nothing more than an outpouring of bile.

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  12. Thanks Ian for two good blogs which are stirring up interesting comment in just the way you intended. Here we are concerned for a strategy for the future; wouldn't it be good to think that somewhere in Government there was similar concern and a capability to put the effort and expertise into producing a strategy, inviting debate and sharing a plan to meet their tree planting promises. We seem to have completely lost faith in both Forestry and Natural England to be a credible part of such a strategy.

    Creative and imaginative thinking is going to be required together with the planning to achieve the mix of requirements for an intelligent future tree growth strategy for Britain. We need reassurance that it could be forthcoming.

    The sins of Forestry past will continue to haunt us with stands of wall to wall unthinned Sitka lodged firmly in the memory. The PR exercise of landscaping forestry in the 1980's showed how it could be done and how it would need to be in the future. Monoculture forestry surely has to be tempered and disease implications now taken into account to favour smaller block planting yet still allow for viable harvesting. Surely the beneficial interspecific effects on growth rate with mixed planting was realise long ago and could be used now to good effect. We can't expect you to come up with all the answers Ian but Blog 4 will be eagerly anticipated.

    Your first blog highlighted the issue of where all these new trees for planting would come from. Do we assume that tree nurserymen throughout the land will be one step ahead and anticipating the demand and the species required? I have more faith in the wisdom of tree planters than those who will decide the strategy and then ask for the trees.Well meaning school groups planting seried rows of Tulley Tubes in the current knee jerk reaction fill me with dismay at the same time that I am still seeing hedges removed and gratuitous tree felling. How many saplings are required to produce the same CO2 fixing abilities of a mature tree? What of our relic ancient woodlands grazed out by sheep and deer and dying off before our eyes? In hot weather and foul weather we see stock struggling to find shelter with few standard trees to offer shade and hedges incapable of forming a windbreak. Surely the potential to achieve short term gain from allowing established hedgerows to put out extra growth before being flailed beats the planting of many a sapling tree, but then I digress.

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