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!