Guest blog – Planting Trees (3) 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 twentieth 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.

This, as the title would suggest, is the third of three blogs relating to the planting of trees. In the recent election campaign, trees were mentioned a lot by the main parties and without repeating the introduction to part one, I highlighted the three main reasons that the parties had for planting trees. The first was to combat the climate emergency, the second was to build up a timber resource and the third was to build up our wooded conservation resource. I argued that as these are three very different objectives we need three different strategies when it comes to achieving them. Parts one and two of this blog have already seen my thoughts on the first two objectives, this blog is about the third.

Planting trees to build up our conservation resource. It is an interesting sentence, the collocation of the words ‘planting’ and ‘conservation’ seems perfectly normal and sensible at first look.  The previous two blogs advocated producing defined strategies for planting trees, but this blog’s strategy for planting for conservation is based around the central idea of not planting trees at all. Instead, the only thing that needs to be planted is the seed of the idea that nature is more than capable of growing a woodland conservation resource, if allowed to do so.

Instead of putting stakes (harvested from trees), tree tubes and nursery grown saplings (and where, one wonders, are we to get these millions of saplings from) into the ground, we should be planting fence posts.  Fence out grazers and tramplers, both animal and mechanical, and in the blink of an ecological eye trees will pullulate forth from the land.  We need to accept the fact that we are an interference in the natural biological processes of this country, remove our interference from small areas of it and nature will do what nature does.

The climatic vegetation across the majority of this country is woodland, the reason we have such a poor percentage of woodland cover across our land is because we have interfered with the nature of it. We actively stop it being woodland. We don’t need expensive planting schemes to create woodland on a plot of land, we just need to stop interfering with it.  Fence it off and wait, that’s all we need to do. The problem is we’re not very good at that, we like to do, and be seen to be doing, stuff.

If we don’t actually plant any of the trees, how on earth can the local MP have their photo taken, proudly wearing a brand new yellow vest and a pair of immaculate wellies, while they brandish a ridiculously shiny spade surrounded by cherubic school children? How can the local newspaper display a geometrically dazzling photo of rows of tubes marching off to the horizon?  How can the council/land owner/ NGO proudly release a statement on their web page, on their facebook page and on their twitter feed telling all and sundry how many trees they have just planted?  Let nature take its course? In this media savvy age? How ridiculous.

Except of course it isn’t ridiculous, it is the best, the most efficient, the most sustainable and, important in this day and age, the most cost effective way of establishing a wooded conservation resource.

Take your average large lawn, fence it off to stop the mowers and leave it. Initially the grass will grow rank, then brambles will start to appear, maybe even a few nettles. Depending on where the lawn is and what trees are nearby, trees will soon start appearing, possibly within just a few months. These are (typically) the pioneer species, fulfilling their niche, colonizing open ground and preparing the ground for other species to follow. The ground preparation that these pioneers undertake is key, they change the make up of the soil, they cultivate relationships with fungal communities, they form a micro climate within their scrubby tangle, they begin the formulation of the wood wide web. Basically, they start to create the environment that other tree species require to establish themselves.

For some reason though, this method of minimum effort rarely gets used by many large landowners, including those NGOs on the greener side of life.   For them it is the neatly spaced tree tube method that prevails, thousands of non local (certainly not immediately local) saplings planted in neat rows. It is more akin to a forestry strategy than a conservation one and, as previously mentioned, these are two different objectives.  So why do we prefer the tree tube method? I think there are three main reasons.

Firstly, public perception. A bramble tangled scrubby mass of Blackthorn looks, in many people’s eyes, to be a mess. It looks like ‘waste ground’, it looks ‘unmanaged’, ‘unwanted’ ‘neglected’, organizations might get complaints about it, it might harm their public image of being seen as being proactive, members might question just where exactly is their subscription being spent, etc, etc. If public perception is the issue then address it, be proud of the ‘mess’ tell all that will listen, and keep telling those that don’t, that that ‘mess’ is not only a brilliant wildlife habitat it is also nurturing their future woodland.  We have this image of a woodland that is full of lofty, clean stemmed Oaks, change the species to Douglas Fir and that image looks very, very similar to an image of forestry.  Woodland for conservation doesn’t need straight tall trees, the trees can be bent double, they can be wispy whippy things competing for light, they can be dying from inter and intraspecific competition, they can lean, they can collapse, they can be a mass of branches, if our objective is to increase the conservation resource, does it matter if they look a bit of a mess?

Secondly there is time. We want it and we want it now, it is the mantra of modern day life.  But trees take a long time to grow, woodlands take a long time to form. A field full of staked tree tubes is an optical illusion, it makes us think that it is a woodland already, but the reality is the struggling saplings (with their damaged roots) within those tree tubes are a long way off being a woodland. It might look more like a woodland than a fenced off, scrubbing up field, but that comes back to our perception of what a woodland should look like.

Thirdly, money. Grants for planting require trees to be planted, funding for woodland creation covers the cost of getting the trees, the cost of planting them and the cost of maintaining them (which can often cover the cost of mowing the spaces between the trees to stop the area scrubbing up!). Landowners and organizations don’t get grants to do nothing, even though doing nothing (other than stopping grazing) can lead to brilliant natural woodland. But this is easily rectified, funding structures can be changed. I repeat myself again, planting trees for different objectives requires different strategies. The funding (if required) for these different strategies has to reflect these different objectives, one size doesn’t fit all.

A strategy for building up our wooded conservation resource should focus on this natural development of woodland, but that is not to say that it shouldn’t also include strategies for more ‘traditional’ tree planting, there is a place for the tree tube, but it shouldn’t be the standard go to option. It should be used only where it is necessary to do so, for example there might be a rare endemic tree (and yes, I am thinking of those Sorbus again!) that need a bit of help to continue to establish new saplings in existing woodland where deer grazing pressure is too high.  I am sure there are more examples, but as I have said, we should, where possible, allow woodland to create itself if we are wanting to ‘plant’ trees to build up our conservation resource.

We should also realize that we don’t have to create woodlands (in the general perception of the word) to increase our wooded conservation resource. Wood park and wood pasture are very important habitats, resplendent veteran trees full of dead wood and red data listed invertebrates, they don’t look like woodland and don’t seem to attract the same verve of enthusiasm when it comes to planting trees, but we shouldn’t overlook this habitat and we really ought to get started on increasing it.

Riparian planting is a hot topic at the moment, it can help in reducing flooding which is why it is getting attention, but it is also great at building a conservation resource if the right species are used in the right places (again, we need clear strategies in place). It has even been suggested that this sort of ‘planting’ can combat the spread of plants such as Himalayan Balsam.

Hedgerows are mini woodlands, but most are in a dreadfully sorry state, if we want to be increasing our wooded conservation resource we shouldn’t just be looking at encouraging landowners to create fields of tree tubes, we should be encouraging landowners to increase the widths of their hedgerows, to round off the geometric corners of their fields with scrub, to create links to more traditional perceptions of woodland. Shelter belts of trees should be encouraged around new housing, etc, etc. There are loads of very positive actions we can take to increase our wooded conservation resource, we shouldn’t, we mustn’t, just focus on the tree tube forestry strategy that seems to be the de facto option.

Our woodland cover is very low when compared to other countries, and it is understandable that we should want to increase it. These three blogs have been written as a response to the promises of politicians in the build up to the general election, it was they, not me, that said that they wanted to plant millions of trees for the reasons I have used as the topics for these blogs. However, it would seem that some people reading these blogs have failed to grasp this point and think that I am responsible for saying that we need to be planting trees to combat the climate emergency, to build up our timber resource and to increase our conservation resource.  I’m not, I didn’t come up with the idea.

What I have actually been saying is that if we are going to plant millions of trees, as the politicians have so definitely stated, then we need to have clear strategies in place to ensure that the objectives that the politicians want realized are actually met. If they want them to achieve specific objectives then they need specific strategies, strategies that clearly set the parameters for what they want the trees to achieve. If our only strategy is to ‘plant trees’ we are missing the point.

It all sounds very easy when a glossy brochure or a PR agency worded press release says that to combat the climate emergency, to build up a timber resource, to increase our wooded conservation resource we are going to plant trees and create lots of woodland, but it misses the vital point.  Where are we going to put them, we live on an island, an island of finite space. The National Trust have recently said they are going to plant lots of trees and increase the percentage of woodland cover on their estate from 10% to 17%, that sounds great, but what are they going to lose to achieve this? The extensively worded press statement heralding the planting didn’t mention what was going to go.

So now what? Where do we plant these millions of trees that have such different reasons behind their planting, how can this increase in tree cover fit in with the other demands on our country’s space, be that housing, farming, or non woodland conservation? What strategies do we need to ensure we get the best value (in all contexts of the word) from our efforts?

I will be looking at this in the next and final blog on tree planting. But, feel free to make suggestions!

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21 Replies to “Guest blog – Planting Trees (3) by Ian Parsons”

  1. Whatever is done one thing for sure is that we need to avoid the litter and land pollution caused by plastic tree guards which have been left in-situ.

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  2. I've been trying to remember the name of an upland welsh site that was run jointly by MLURI and IGER where I did some grassland fungal surveying in the early 2000s they had 2 long term experiments it was Bronydd Mawr- one was agroforestry
    https://www.agroforestry.ac.uk/content/bronydd-mawr-agroforestry-site
    and the other one consisted of grassland plots ,one treatment being to shut everything out and see what happened - unfortunately that one seems to have been abandoned. I do remember one of the people working there telling me that they had a celebration when a hawthorn grew on one of these plots after some years of waiting.
    Sadly these experiments although important aren't sexy or fashionable so don't get the funding. Although some are kept going see here https://www.ecologicalcontinuitytrust.org/

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  3. Thanks Ian – this excellent essay needs to be spread and read far and wide.
    Abandoned quarries are one of the best adverts for the colonising superpowers of trees – steep slopes and bare rock, no problems. The main key to success is, as you say, the exclusion of grazing animals. Charles Darwin noted just that, in a later edition of the Origin of Species, when he explored the hundreds of acres of ‘extremely barren’ Surrey heaths:
    “Here there are extensive heaths, with a few clumps of old Scotch firs on the distant hill-tops: within the last ten years large spaces have been enclosed and self-sown firs are springing up in multitudes …”
    He went on to say that no one could ever imagine in such a barren vastness ‘that cattle would have so closely and effectually searched out’ and kept eating off all the tree seedlings hidden within the unenclosed heather.

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  4. Have a look at Butcherlands, part of Ebernoe Common and next door to the original SAC/NNR nature reserve wood pasture there. Sussex WT did exactly what is suggested here nearly 20 years ago and just left the arable farm to regenerate into woodland. It doesn't look like a wood yet but its well on its way and looking great. Already has wild service tree natural regeneration as well as plenty of young oaks amongst the Vera-esque hawthorn and bramble thickets. Meanwhile very low intensity cattle grazing is working wonders in the original wood pasture area. Enjoy.

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  5. 'Where are we going to put them'

    In the uplands. On marginal hill land. In sparsely populated areas that few people visit. The sort of landscape that doesn't feature on postcards or biscuit tins. In reality that's where the vast bulk of trees will be planted. And there won't be any MPs having a photo opportunity when it happens.

    Access roads will be bulldozed in. Borrow pits and quarries created.The land will be drained and ploughed. A soil profile that has lain undisturbed for millennia will be inverted. Non native trees will be planted. Fertilisers and insecticides will be applied. A haven for foxes and crows will be created. In forty years time when a timber crop of dubious quality is harvested the curlew and other waders that used to breed there will be long gone.

    That process is already under way. I was talking to a farmer recently who told me that the FC (as were) had offered his neighbour £1,300 per acre for just this type of land. I can't see many farmers turning down that sort of money.

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  6. Really enjoyed part 3 of this excellent series and learned a lovely new (for me) word. "In the blink of an ecological eye trees will pullulate forth from the land". Wonderful stuff! Thanks Ian

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  7. Ian, three excellent blogs, so thank you. Before you get too down about the negative comments, see the reality. To date your three blogs have 73 likes to 6 dislikes. Less than 10% disagree with you.

    That trees are capable of growing without our help I can confirm from our own small patch. Trees spring up whenever I turn my back. When I find them in our meadow patch, I simple dig them up and either move them or pot them up for future use.
    I noticed a few days ago that the RSPB are boasting about a new toy they have (p12 winter Impact mag). It’s a tree popper! Apparently £250 gets you a large metal lever capable of pulling up a 5ft birch sapling in less than a minute!! I kid you not.
    Tell you what, how about digging them up and using them on another site where you are buying them to plant. Or even sell them to people like me who would like them, to defray the cost.
    And these saplings just spring up with no help from plastic tubes whatsoever. Where did they learn to do that? Its as if they were doing it for millions of years before plastic was invented. Outrageous.

    More seriously on these tree protectors, how about a thought, at least from our NGOs, on protecting the environment. Hedges are laid, often by contractors, with no thought about ever removing the protectors once they have done their job. ‘No need’ they will say to the farmer, he will be told that the spirals or tubes will just disappear on their own. They will break down in sunlight or biodegrade.
    Cobblers. What actually happens is that they go brittle and break up so that when I try to get them out of a hedge, they fall into hundreds of bits. And yes, our NGOs also use this method.
    How many times have you seen a large tree with the remnants of a plastic tube trying to strangle it, even though the tree may now be over twenty years old. And don’t get me started on plastic ties, stretching and cutting into the bark of a tree that was told that it would rot and fall off.
    You know the real trouble with plastic? It’s cheap. Very cheap.
    Go online today, put in Ezeetrees.com, or Gogreenguards.com and you will find tree and hedge guards that are truly biodegradable. They are made of recycled fibre or cardboard. Problem is they are a little pricier that the plastic alternative. Starting from 37p per guard they are enough to make a reserve warden go weak at the knees.
    But try factoring in the cost that you won’t have to remove them in a few years, you won’t have to buy plastic ties, and the environmental saving is huge, and they turn out not to be that expensive after all.
    So Ian, please, when you next type the words ‘there is a place for the tree tube’ please also tell people that they don’t have to use plastic!

    Lastly, you mentioned hedges which I believe deserve a blog on their own. Here in much of Lincolnshire we are seeing hedges being cut lower and thinner every year. Why? I am now seeing fields that I haven’t seen in years. Fields that were hidden behind thick high hedgerows full of nesting and roosting sites, full of food, are now being decimated by many farmers. And to what purpose? Is it because if you get rid of all your wildlife, no busy body will come along in the future and tell you to protect it?
    Hedges that were full of sparrows and yellow hammers only a few years ago are now lifeless. Why?
    And what is this new thing I am seeing this year for the first time where the occasional trees in a hedgerow are being cut down to make future hedge cutting easier. This is madness. I do wish somebody would explain this destruction, this desecration of our land.

    I look forward to your fourth blog on this subject. Maybe it will tell us some good stories like that of Carrifran. Places where locals takeover and NGOs and farmers keep their mitts off.

    Bit confused that wasn’t it, still, I feel better.

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    1. Yes I see this a lot too where hedges are flailed to near death. I'm positive that this is down to 'tidiness' and an awful lot of the farming community who we keep getting told are essentially conservationists are even more obsessed with it than many suburbanites. Potential wildlife habitat is being sterilised as much in the countryside as it is in towns for no valid reason. You're right this issue needs to be flagged up publicly it's been badly neglected even though Mark Cocker and George Monbiot have highlighted it, it's above and beyond requirements to get agricultural subsidies.

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  8. another likely benefit of fencing out grazers: fewer landslips like todays
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-51307327

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  9. A very interesting series of blogs Ian. I have long argued that conservation woodland is best created by simply keeping out the grazers as you do. There are a few places and species that may need a helping hand, either because they are relatively rare and vulnerable or they are no longer in the local seed bank but are natural to the area, Aspen springs to mind there. I know of one grouse moor valley where there is an oak wood in the gill bottom with said oaks spreading up the valley sides and young birch, rowan, scots pine and holly amongst the heather bilberry and bracken. If rotational burning completely ceased in this area and the blanket bog restored by blocking all the drains and erosion gullies we might end up with a much more natural habitat in the future a mixture of woodland, scattered trees, open areas and true blanket bogs too wet to support trees. Once such habitat is regenerated all it needs is a little light grazing as part of the natural processes. This would almost certainly be more diverse than its current management as intensive grouse moor and could still occasionally be shot just in a very different way.

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  10. I liked this post Ian its purpose was far easier to discern than in the previous two. I absolutely detest the standard tree planting event, we need to be planting woodland not just lots of a few species of native trees in closely packed rows in plastic tubes. This is just bloody lazy and we should have moved on from this decades ago. I feel a bit more intervention is necessary than you propose though. The cow field I grew up next too hasn't had cattle on it for more than thirty years, but the soil is so poached and the grass tussocks so thick that there's been virtually zero re establishment of any trees. Also it's not as easy for tree seeds, berries and nuts to be distributed as it used to there are far more barriers to their dispersal than there used to be. I think there has to be some human input re giving many species a helping hand to compensate for all the new roads and housing estates that seal off pockets of potential woodland and decrease the chance all forms of life can return. I think you're absolutely spot on about the need to counter, challenge this public attitude towards 'mess' that's so disastrous for conservation. My personal bug bear is that at a time when we should be taking dead wood into woodland and educating the public about its vital role, we do public consultation exercises then remove it for 'aesthetic' reasons. Ignorance (and political expediency) over education, not good.

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  11. Another great blog, Ian ! To get my disagreement out of the way first - computing natural regeneration with conservation and planting with 'forestry' is wrong - and the proof of the pudding sits on Mark's doorstep in the Northants ancient woods which have improved on every count from stopping trying to force conifers onto impossible planting sites.

    But everything to do with trees is, I completely agree, obsessed with planting. BUT planting, natural regeneration etc may be religions - but they aren't outcomes, they are tools. Planters really struggle with all the things you point out - its messy, it takes too long and you aren't 'in control' - particularly poignant as we lurch into another flawed version of being in control.

    One key problem in the whole debate is the complete ignoring - or maybe ignorance - of the differences of site type. Yes, regen will take a long,long time if your starting point is a single Rowan on an impoverished moorland. Rather different on the heavy clays of Northants, with Jays protected under a properly applied general license - Oak will literally spring from the ground given half a chance.

    And that half chance is mainly predicated by the issue of which plastic tubes are a symptom, not the cause - browsing, deer, sheep rabbits, whatever - the single biggest issue both biologically & economically to establishing trees.

    And please stop assuming new woods & forests are going to be on the high moors of the 1970s and 1980s - first, because they should never have been there in the first place, forced there by a fatally flawed agriculture policy, and second because if you go on assuming that, that's exactly what will happen - when we have proposals on the table for, for example, major planting around our towns and cities.

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  12. Like others, I share the dismay at which field boundary hedgerows, especially hawthorn, are trimmed so severely that they sometimes barely reach knee level.

    They never flower, produce berries or provide nest sites for birds and habitat for insects - they’re useless for wildlife.

    Can someone enlighten me? In the environmental stewardship scheme, is there no stipulation that hedgerows must not be trimmed below a certain minimum height?

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    1. I remember in May 1990 travelling by train from Stirling to Falkirk and being gobsmacked at how glorious the flowers were on the hedgerow hawthorns that year, I 've never seen it before or since. It looked as if the bushes were covered in snow the blossom was that thick. Now when I look at those same 'hedgerows' from my railway carriage I only see drastically truncated, squared off hedges that would be at home in the garden of the same people who couldn't stand to have a daisy in their lawn. Why have we lost the beautiful for the ugly and banal?

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    2. Under the Countryside Stewardship hedgerow management option, hedges must be trimmed to a minimum height of 2m and a minimum width of 1.5m.

      Under the basic hedgerow management options under the old Environmental Stewardship scheme the minimum cutting height was 1.5m, with no restrictions on width.

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      1. A good hedge should in reality be at least as wide as it is tall. If flail cu they should not be cut in a narrow rectangle but should the same shape as a capital A. Tidyness in the countryside especially of hedgerows is one of the things killing the countryside.

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        1. In general I would agree re shape and height; an A-shaped hedge which is 6-7 ft wide in the base and 6-7 ft in height is a good default style.

          Ideally it is preferable by have an aggregation of heights and shapes across a farm, and in some circumstances there is an advantage in having hedges cut a bit lower, for example if they are bordering land favoured by ground nesting birds which prefer an open aspect landscape.

          In many parts of the UK the biggest threat to hedgerows is not from annual trimming, but from a lack of protection from continuous sheep grazing.

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  13. Management rules are part of the problem. The inflexible SSSI and stewardship prescriptions slavishly followed by both conservation organisations and farmers often lead to a net loss of wildlife diversity particularly in invertebrate categories.

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  14. Part of the problem we face is well illustrated by this blog string - a debate about landuse change on a grand scale has ended up with a long discussion on hedge cutting.

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  15. Ian Parsons, you are a star! You have eyes and a brain and are not afraid to use them with two unfashionable tools - rational thought and common sense.

    The unprecedented proposals for mass tree planting in response to climate change are baffling. Even for climate change resilience planning, unequivocal evidence for the benefits of planting trees from one or five degrees latitude south is lacking. Have people forgotten about genetic diversity and that many individual trees have lived through mini ice ages, droughts etc? The reason Dutch Elm Disease showed no resistance was because English Elm had zero genetic diversity as it was a sterile clone of a tree brought in by the Romans and not 'English' at all. When each Elm met the the disease, the response was identical - they died.

    For carbon offsetting or mitigation, the proposed solution of mass tree planting is untenable because it is logistically and numerically flawed. If we accept the estimate of a broadleaved tree removing from the atmosphere one tonne nett of CO2 over 100 years, an average petrol or diesel powered car emitting five tonnes of CO2 every year and, leaving aside lorries and air travel, with 38.7 million cars in the UK, each year they produce 38.7 million x 5 tonnes of CO2 = 193.5 million tonnes of CO2. Therefore, it will take 193.5 million trees 100 years to ‘offset’ this one year’s (let’s call it 2020) emissions. If there is no dramatic change in the number of cars on UK roads or their emissions, in 2021 another 193.5 million more trees will be needed for that year’s emissions over a century. Do this for 2022 and 2023 and you’ve already surpassed the ‘700 million trees by 2030’ lobbied for. And when one remembers the century needed for each year’s emissions, these tree numbers and their efficacy (if my simple calculations are correct) start to look ridiculous.

    If you add to this the massive damage done by planting up species-rich meadows and swamping local provenance when these imported saplings reach seed bearing age, not to mention the waste of resources which could otherwise be invested in hydrogen fuel cell technology and public transport, the notion that 'everything in the environment will be fine if we plant trees' and 'there's no need to stop driving or flying if we offset it with trees', then the urgent need for re-thinking this 'Emperor's New Clothes' hysteria is obvious.

    We have 11 hectares of Ancient Semi-natural Woodland which we deer fenced some year ago; it is now unrecognisable. Natural regeneration of all tree species is everywhere and so is Ash Dieback resistance because we have allowed seedlings to grow without being immediately eaten by deer. Sexual reproduction means we have genetic diversity. The tree-planting brigade cannot come close even when they have selected for disease resistance because the saplings will not have local provenance and will not be automatically adapted in the way naturally regenerated ones will.

    Instead of a sticking plaster 'solution' to climate change, we need to cut off the source of carbon dioxide without making matters worse and covering the countryside in rows of plastic tubes stretching to the horizon like War Graves.

    Natural regeneration is the only hope for the future of our native woodland. A whole generation of children could grow up thinking that a plantation is a wood.

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