18 May 2017

Tree Planting, Topography, Timber And Toxins

Do we need to plant more trees? How to get one planted.

by Lynda Goetz

It is believed that around 3,000 BC some 50-60% of the UK was forested.   But, that being said, any belief that forest cover has been in continual decline since then is totally erroneous.  A fascinating resource here is the Forestry Commission timeline, which evidences clearly how events, and in particular wars, have influenced the way we have used our timber supply throughout the centuries.  Today’s cover at around 10% in England (13% in the UK owing to greater cover in Wales and Scotland) may not be as much as the Government had hoped, but it is double the percentage in 1300, when war and massive clearances for animal grazing had taken their toll; far higher than at the end of the 16thC after the increase in housebuilding, shipbuilding and use of charcoal in various processes (including gunpowder production);  more than twice that in 1815 when timber usage in the Napoleonic wars had reduced woodland cover to an all-time low and 1900 when cover once again down at  5%, shortly to be made worse by the advent of the First World War, led to the founding of the Forestry Commission in 1919.

In the light of this, are headlines referring to ‘an all-time low’,  words like ‘appalling’ and ‘shocking’, and expressions such as ‘drastic decline‘ and ‘prospect of deforestation’, really appropriate or necessary?  This is the sort of reporting which greeted the release of figures last June by the Forestry Commission and also this year’s quarterly report.  It is true that these comments mostly refer to tree planting rather than forest cover and also that between 2011 and 2014 there was a great deal more creation of woodland than there has been over the last two years.  Is this a problem and if so, why, and what can be done about it?

It is a fact that the Government’s aim was to achieve some 12% cover in England by 2060.  This is of course still possible, but it will require planting at a much higher rate than the current one.  This is partly because we are also using more wood.  As our population increases, so the demands for timber increase with it.  Over 80% of our timber is imported.  Use of wood has changed through the centuries.  Wood is currently being used again for heating our homes and hot water (wood burners and wood-pellet boilers); it is being used for furniture, as a clothes fibre and for medicines (e.g. yew for docetaxol and paclitaxel chemotherapy drugs) inter alia.  Not only is there actual usage to consider, but the environmental value of woodland is now much more understood and appreciated.  Many people derive pleasure from being able to access woodland, but as most now know, trees have an important environmental role as well.

Only this week, the academic scientific journal Atmospheric Environment has, according to the BBC environment correspondent, produced an article suggesting that not only should we be planting trees, but that hedges are also essential for absorbing harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.  Lead author Professor Prashant Kumar suggests that where possible in towns and cities, councils should plant low hedges between pavements and roads to help trap harmful toxins from vehicle exhaust pipes.  He is not suggesting that they should stop planting trees, indeed he feels that many more should be planted, simply that hedges could provide a further defence against our increasingly polluted air.

Woodland is also important in reducing flooding; increasing water absorption into the ground, preventing soil erosion and reducing sediment going into rivers, as well as creating a physical barrier to floodwater.  Studies into these ‘soft engineering’ aspects of managing flood risk have shown ‘significant scope for using woodland to reduce flood risk’, although it needs to be part of a ‘whole-catchment approach to flood-risk management’ (Woodland flood control: a landscape perspective)

Part of the problem, it would seem, is that the current regulation of forest in this country is shared between four separate Government departments; Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Agency (DEFRA), the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, all administering the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.  In addition, last November the Government opened the Woodland Carbon Fund to encourage more large-scale planting.  The grant scheme for landowners wishing to plant forest changed in 2015 and there have been delays in processing contracts and payments.  Negotiating the complex bureaucratic procedure appears to be something of a nightmare and this, combined with the uncertainty around what correlation, if any, exists between tree planting and EU agricultural subsidies, may have led many farmers and landowners to avoid new tree-planting altogether.

Austin Braby, a spokesman for the The Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservations charity, said last June that “there have been lots of really interesting and well-informed conversations… but the system… is not matching up with the fine words.  It is not fit for purpose.”  It may be that the system has needed time to bed down, but as Countryside Stewardship is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, which of course will not be available after Brexit, it may take some time before it really does and we can get back to the planting rates needed to meet the Government-declared targets.

In the meantime, some of you may be interested to know that as an individual who is not a farmer or a landowner, you can still ‘do your bit’ and get a tree planted, although of course there is no EU grant attached.   You do not however need a spade or a garden.  All you have to do is to sign the Tree Charter.   As 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of the Forest ( a separate dedicated charter of all the rules contained in the 1215 Magna Carter relating to forests), some 50 organisations led by the Woodland Trust have got together to promote the importance of trees.  Just by signing the charter you ensure a tree is planted on your behalf.  If only everything were so simple!


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