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 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.