Guest blog – Planting Trees (4) 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

This is Ian’s twenty-first 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.

The previous three blogs in this series were written by me in response to the many promises about trees that the various political parties made in the build up to the last election in December. Vast numbers of trees were promised, we were told that they would be planted to ‘combat the climate emergency’, to ‘increase our timber resource’ and to ‘increase our conservation resource’. I argued in the previous blogs that as each objective was different they would need different strategies in place to ensure that the objectives were actually met and that we can’t just ‘plant trees’ in the same vague manner that politicians promised them in.

It looks great when politicians say that they are going to plant millions of trees, it is a simple platitude that is guaranteed to generate favourable press, but for me it raises more questions, the answers to which cannot be found in amongst the tree promising manifestos.  I am naturally cynical when it comes to these sort of statements, but my cynicism should not be interpreted as me being against tree planting, I love trees and love woodland, but I also like to ask questions. We all should.

The biggest and most obvious question is where are we going to plant these trees? Up to a billion new trees were promised by politicians in the build up to the election, now taking a rough planting density recommended for tree planting by various bodies and grant giving organizations, that equates to roughly 450,000 hectares of new planting, or if you’d rather, 1738 square miles. That’s quite a big area, it is more than the entire area of the county of Somerset. Obviously the politicians have identified this large county sized area of land available for planting… You see how easy cynicism creeps in.

We live on an island of finite space, our population density is high compared to many other countries in Europe, countries that have a much higher percentage of woodland cover than we do, and the land that we do have is already under huge pressure from various conflicting sources. Something will have to give, and give big time, if we are actually going to achieve anything like the promised totals.  But it is not just politicians that tell us they are going to plant large numbers of trees without actually saying where they are going.

On the day the first blog of this series was published on Mark’s site, so too was a press statement from the National Trust. I have to say that this was completely coincidental, I had no idea that this statement was coming, but the timing was perfect. The NT, in a finely worded press release that no doubt won them lots of praise, said that they were going to increase the woodland cover of their estate from the current 10% to 17%, now seven percent doesn’t sound unrealistically large, but in the context of the NT’s estate that’s about 17,500 hectares or roughly 68 square miles. There was no mention in the press release about what they were prepared to lose 68 square miles of to achieve their target.

All land has a value and not just a monetary one, the land that the NT owns already has terrific conservation value, lowland heathland, coastal cliffs, upland moorland, chalk grasslands etc etc. Their land also has cultural and historical value, gardens, parkland, archaeological sites etc. Do the NT really have 17,500 hectares of land that is simply waiting to become woodland without it having an impact on the other reasons for them owning it?

I assume that the NT have carried out a form of audit on their land to identify the 17,500 hectares of land that are to become woodland, it would be very interesting to see the criteria they used for this, especially as we as a country are going to have to go through a similar process if we are to plant up a whole county’s worth of land.  I don’t want to be seen as having a go at the NT, I think what they are wanting to achieve is excellent, but I am very curious as to how they are going to achieve it bearing in mind the other demands of their estate. The coincidental timing of their statement and my first blog mean that it is easy for me to use them as an example, but that is all I am doing.

The biggest land use in Britain is agriculture, around 70% of the land in this country is classed as agricultural. If we are looking at planting millions of trees then this land is the obvious target for us to achieve those targets on (perhaps the NT are looking at their agricultural land holdings?). But it is not as if we have a surfeit of agricultural land lying idle, just as we rely heavily on timber imports, we also rely heavily on food imports too.  We import almost half of the food consumed in this country, 48% currently and that figure is rising annually. Now a lot of the food we import can’t be grown here, but a lot of it can be, which indicates potentially that our agricultural land doesn’t have the slack in the system that will allow us to plant up the potential 450,000 hectares of it without impacting on food production.

Are we being too optimistic in our tree thinking? Have the politicians got it wrong with their aspirational numbers? Or did they just think the numbers sounded good and that nobody would look too hard at them (cynicism comes trotting back…).  Well actually, although 450,000 hectares sounds a lot, and is a lot, of land, it is less than 5% of the agricultural land in the country. When it is put like that, it doesn’t sound that much.

Red meat (beef, pork and lamb) sales in Britain dropped last year and it has been estimated that we consumed 3.6million less animals in the first half of 2019 as a result. That is actually quite a staggering number and if it is a beginning of a downward trend for meat consumption in this country, it does, potentially, free up land. How much land is hard to work out as it is difficult to know whether the drop in sales of meat is hitting UK produced meat or non UK produced meat, but the potential is there nonetheless. (I am assuming that far less land is needed to produce meals that are non red meat based than those that are, please correct me if I am wrong.)

Now that we are no longer part of the EU we need to draw up new legislation that covers how we manage our land, both environmentally and agriculturally, which means that now is the perfect time for this country to come up with specific strategies for planting trees.  Which brings me back to the first three blogs…

I don’t want to repeat what I said in those three blogs, they are there to be read if you haven’t already done so, but I will just make a few points.

Planting to combat the climate emergency: Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a change in terminology since the election, it now seems to be a climate crisis rather than a climate emergency, whilst others still use just climate change. I don’t know what is correct, I am no meteorologist, but if we are going to have a strategy to combat it, the government needs to decide just what is happening with our climate and act accordingly. Emergencies need prompt and swift actions to alleviate the problem which is why I proposed the planting of a tree species that absorbs more carbon over a short period of time than any other tree that I could think of that already grows in the UK (Bishop Pine has been here since 1846). I was deliberately being provocative by suggesting it and it caused a reaction, but no one was able to suggest another tree that would have the same immediate impact in absorbing CO2, which is surely what we want if we are to deal with a climate emergency. But if it is not an emergency anymore then perhaps other species that absorb CO2 at slower rates will do the job, I guess someone in authority needs to make a decision as to whether we are in a state of change, crisis or emergency…

Planting to increase our timber resource: The word forestry is always a good one to drop into a conversation if you want to poke bears. But as I said in that blog, we are dependent on forestry in this country and whilst we can and should reduce our demand for wood products, the fact is we import around 85% of our annual need and it is understandable why politicians want to reduce that percentage. Before people head off on a rant about toilet rolls again, let me repeat that the majority of our timber imports are sawn softwood timber used in the construction of houses and we are building millions of houses over the next couple of decades.  We can produce some of that timber here, especially if we grow it on the right soils as opposed to the poor (in terms of tree growing) upland soils which forestry has been shackled to due to past and present governmental policy (strategies again). Alternatives to timber in house construction tend to release a lot of CO2 in their production, timber absorbs it. We shouldn’t be afraid of forestry, we just need good strategies to manage it and the outcomes that we require.

Planting to increase our conservation resource: Not much more to add to the ideas that I put forward in that blog, but I do readily accept that if we are to use tubes when planting (and my preference is to not plant, see blog) they mustn’t be plastic and yes there are good alternatives out there.

When I started this series of blogs I did so with the naïve thought that I could cover the subject in just one relatively short blog, now, four blogs in, I realize that I still haven’t covered it properly. It goes to show that ‘planting trees’ isn’t as simple as it sounds and that reinforces my original point. If our politicians (and NGOs, land owners etc) are truly serious about planting millions and millions of trees they need to do so with clear objectives and proper, workable, strategies in place to ensure that the outcomes required are achievable.

I’ll stop now.


15 Replies to “Guest blog – Planting Trees (4) by Ian Parsons”

  1. Thanks Ian, four stimulating blogs. You make the strongest case for well thought out strategy for tree planting yet I now firmly believe that, as with Wild Justice actions, we are in a position of applying more thought and wisdom to environmental issues than can be summoned by the government of the day. We are going to have to take the lead on this and guide the government into acting on its promises.

  2. In your 9th Jan Tree Planting blog, Trapit’s comment favouring Norway Spruce to help with the climate emergency, is a good one. First, it’s a timber tree and therefore guarantees long term carbon capture. (There’s no point in planting millions of fast growing trees that are eventually left to rot.) Second, Norway Spruce has good biodiversity benefits because it’s a ‘near-native’. Bishop Pine has neither of these assets – moreover it’s an unknown quantity.

    In the old FC days, there was ‘pyjama stripe’ planting E.g. Beech and firs. (The latter ‘drew up’ the slower growing hard wood species.) Nowadays that would be called resilience planting – the greater the mix, the greater the chance of some sort of crop in the event of serious disease outbreaks. (Plant pathogens are spreading as the climate warms.)
    By the way, has any work been done using the nitrogen fixing alder as an inter-planted fertilising agent? Surely it would help other trees to grow faster and fatter as well as being great for wildlife.

    1. How much carbon does upland permanent grassland capture, and how much of this is lost if it is ploughed up and drained to plant trees?

    2. Thanks murray, it’s nice to know someone thinks i have good ideas!.
      I think i would be about thirteen, when it suddenly hit me that the best place for bird nesting,
      generally speaking, was a young Spruce plantation, as they grow obviously they change, but
      even mature, well thinned woods, can be fantastic places.
      Apparently, i am told they can also carry a large Biomass of insect life at this stage, if not the
      variety of say, an Oak.
      Some of the old type of estate planting, as i call it, can have great variety. We have some here,
      planted in the thirties and regularly thinned, that can have maybe, Oak, Ash,Sycamore, Pine,
      Spruce, and Larch. Good for wildlife,changing timber demands, and of course if specific diseases
      are threatening.
      Some of our recent plantings have been of Spruce and Pine, (Larch is a bit of a worry just now),
      but also good areas of Oak with a view to the future, along with Douglas fir, and a nice lot of
      Sweet Chestnut. Also, many woods are now being cut in thirty metre squares, and replanted,
      adding variety, and maintaining forest cover, so hopefully all bases covered.
      It quite excites me at times.
      The thing with private estate forestry, is that it has to pay, and unless the government comes up
      with a masterplan, and the money to fund it, it will stay that way.

  3. I want to raise the rhetorical device used to argue for some strategy to accommodate all the trees.
    According to the book Scotland. A Rewilding Journey, the EU ave pop’n density is 116/km2, Scotland nearly half that at 66/km2 and to make their point, of getting more trees AND more people the Highlands is 11/km2.

    There is space for more trees, also, more peat bogs, more riparian wetlands, more everything that would make the planet’s and our health better. And haven’t even looked at estuaries, seas and oceans ability to absorb and store CO2 if we stop trashing them.

    (Traditional…boo!) Forestry has a role if the timber produced replaces concrete, steel and other CO2 costly materials. This was covered well in an ICF conference I attended in 1990!

  4. ‘ (I am assuming that far less land is needed to produce meals that are non red meat based than those that are, please correct me if I am wrong.)’

    Depends on the land. Good luck producing non red meat based meals on the marginal hill land where, in reality, most of these additional trees are going to be planted.

    ‘We can produce some of that timber here, especially if we grow it on the right soils as opposed to the poor (in terms of tree growing) upland soils which forestry has been shackled to due to past and present governmental policy (strategies again).’


    Wouldn’t growing trees in richer, deeper soils at lower altitudes with more benign climates produce even worse timber (ie softer and sappier) so far as the construction industry is concerned?

  5. Ian, thanks for these blogs, they do as you intended and get people thinking about and discussing the issue. Don’t agree with your last three words on the subject though. If you have more thoughts, please let ‘em rip.
    Having spoken about my hatred of plastic protection for trees before, on Sunday I found a new thing to hate about them.
    Whilst driving back from Kent along the new, rerouted A14, there were literally thousands of plastic tubes on both embankments. Most were still upright despite the wind, however, many were lying flat, no longer protecting anything and a few had got as far as dancing along the three lane highway causing cars to swerve or risk damage.
    The spend on the works is obviously colossal anyway, so with green alternatives out there, why not set an example and use them? What would it really add to the overall cost? Not only would hitting a piece of cardboard be safer than hitting plastic, if the agencies started to use these alternatives, the cost would come down anyway.
    Rant over.
    When looking at forestry to supply our building needs, should we not also take into account that in future more building materials will be made of recycled plastic? (Preferably tree protectors). Not only would it give a second use to something that is otherwise heading for land fill (or our oceans), it would then free up more land for native broadleaf.
    I used to think it was a good thing that benches and walkways were now often made of recycled plastic. No maintenance, no rot, weather proof and non slip, however, in discussion with a highly respected Norfolk warden some years ago, he believed that the recycling process was more damaging to the environment and would continue to use wood on his reserve. Many sites on the internet indicate this is not the case. Does anybody know the truth of this? Maybe make a good blog and discussion?

    1. We definitely need to be looking into this. The fact that the jokey old stalwart of the green movement – recycled loo roll – has become increasingly difficult to find shows we are going in exactly the wrong direction from the one we should be, backward rather than forward. I don’t know the exact amount of wood used to make pallets, but it’s pretty bloody big and you can make reusable pallets from recycled plastic. However, pallets are even less sexy than toilet paper so yet again this goes under the radar. Even if all plastic production ceased immediately (an utter impossibility now, as well to talk about giving up electricity) there would still be hundreds of millions of tons of plastic in the environment that need to be removed from it. Once done it would either be landfilled, incinerated or recycled. If the latter at least we have an opportunity to displace some of our consumption of wood. Turning trees into logs for stoves, paper, veneers, tables or houses is no more a natural process than turning petrol chemicals into plastics, it’s just the former has a nice olde world feel to it while the latter is more modern and clearly industrial. I find it hard to believe the ecological aspects have been taken properly into consideration when anyone says ‘sustainable’wood products are better than recycled plastic from an environmental viewpoint, they’re bloody well not for the natural recycling process and the wildlife that depends upon it. Sustainability is a convenient buzzword/ cover all that only really means being able to do something for a very long time which is why business can be keen on it, a way to keep the money rolling in when reducing waste and unnecessary consumption wouldn’t. Forestry is a prime example of this, whaling and the fur industry have also pushed ‘sustainability’ as a convenient defense. I’m probably teaching my granny to suck eggs with these statements, but I’m so pissed off with them not being made in the public domain where they need to be I feel I have to make them as often as I can. I’m planning to write a few blogs about these topics this year and hopefully persuade Mark that there is enough connection between ‘waste’ issues and the natural world to get them posted here (dependent on meeting quality criteria too – it may take some time).

  6. A long time ago, part of my studies considered the use of forestry (agro-forestry) in New Zealand where pasture or arable fields were divided up by belts of woodland either along contour lines or at right angles to the prevailing winds. This helped to ameliorate the micro-climate; provided shelter for crops and livestock; helped stop soil erosion; gave shade for livestock; slowed water run-off, lessening floods; gave a timber crop; provided habitat for wildlife; cleaned up air pollution etc. Now we can also add carbon-capture. So agriculture and forestry can go hand in hand, although the scale of operations for forestry are obviously much smaller than large plantations. Is this a possible way forward in the UK?

  7. ‘Whilst we could and should reduce our demands for wood products….’ well a good start might be ‘ranting’ about the fact while local authorities here are trying to sell old paper from recycling schemes which would be perfect for bog roll virgin fibre – some from chipped natural forest, the rest from commercial forestry that has replaced it – is used instead. This is idiotic, it’s up there with bottled water as an environmentally disastrous and scandalous waste. Hardly an inconsequential use of wood products either as there’s a (justified) demand for toilet paper from sixty million plus people in this country, it’s what it’s made from that’s the issue. Also rather important we set a positive example to the rest of the world, there’s currently a plan for the major expansion of wood processing in Finland’s lakes region to supply the Chinese with virgin fibre tissues, some of Sweden’s last pristine forests are threatened by bog roll manufacture and the reluctance of American consumers to use recycled fibre on their delicate little botties is a major driver in the destruction of natural boreal forest in North America.

    If the imbecility of losing forest to toilet paper doesn’t underline how we need to look at managing demand before looking at slavishly supplying it I’m not sure what does and am not convinced there isn’t scope to significantly reduce wood use across a very wide range of its applications – what potential is there for using recycled plastic in boardwalks, pallets, fencing? Have you ever began one of your essays from the perspective of what we actually use the wood for and how we could reduce the demand for it? That should be the standard approach as with the discussion about conservation (supposedly) versus farming in this country needs to begin with the statement that a third of our food gets binned. And of course that very last point has a great deal of relevance to increasing the area of land available for woodland expansion/required commercial forestry in this country. Maybe I’m a wee bit old fashioned, but I think wilderness – lots of it – being lost because of what people choose to wipe their arses with is something conservationists (if not foresters) should be furious about.

    1. I repeat, these blogs were a response to politicians saying they are going to plant millions of trees for the three reasons they (not me) came up with. All I was saying was that we need strategies in place, not vague notions, for this.
      Just this morning Grant Schapps was on saying they were going to plant 7 million trees in relation to HS2, that’s not me saying plant 7 million trees, it is the government. I say let’s see the strategies for this planting then, what objectives are you looking to achieve? They can’t answer that because they have no strategy other than the same old tubed planting schemes. It is this that these ‘essays’ are about, I have said it many times throughout all of the blogs…
      As for using recycled plastic as boardwalks, I thought we were trying to remove plastic from the environment not put it back into it. Plastic wears just like any other material, our feet erode it gradually, breaking minute, microscopic, some would say micro plastics, off it every time we walk across it. Plastic boardwalks across wetlands will just send more plastic back into the water courses. Then there’s the carbon cost of recycling plastic, it takes huge amounts of energy for a start. Plastic wood, for want of a better name, is not good for the environment.

    2. Toilet paper from recycled paper is widely available. I have been buying it for decades. No point recycling stuff if people don’t search out and buy those products.

  8. As a starter for 10, the natural capital Committee has put 250,000 has of new community woodland around our towns and cities as one of the programmes for which it has good evidence – and estimates £500m pa of economic benefit. So that’s half.

    Then, the less favoured areas produce just 5% of our food and the subsidy to hill farms is frequently greater than the take home pay – farming actually costs the farmer money ! And its a bit more complicated than the eyewash of food security – we export almost exactly the same amount of lamb as we import !

    More trees is about creating new landscapes and we should be working forward towards the outcomes we need, not paralysed by traditional sectoral boundaries. Forestry has moved on – but has conservation ? It’s not the 1990s anymore and there’s a lot more to trees and climate change than broadleaves vs conifers. If you want to know more read my article in December British Wildlife.

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