I find I am, to some extent, on a similar wavelength to Andy Byfield in his Guardian piece on tree planting. Perhaps more so in the light of recent developments that emphasise the need to think how we can deliver more resilient landscapes in the face of growing impacts from climate, pests and disease, and changes in both land use and land management practices. But, I do remain a little more optimistic about the role that planting new native trees and woods can play. Tree planting is usually a very visible activity and one which can be used as a way of engaging and enthusing people about the natural environment, whilst the wider work of protecting our valuable ancient woods and the major programmes of restoring ancient woods that were damaged by conifer planting in recent times continues too, day in and day out. Maybe there is some work to do to put the importance of ‘protecting and restoring’ on a more even footing with tree planting in the public’s mind?
However, back to tree planting. The case for a more well thought out approach to woodland expansion has already been well made by the Independent Panel on Forestry in their report and recommendations to Government. They clearly embrace the Lawton principles, now enshrined in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper and champion the role that new woodland must play in supporting biodiversity, reversing fragmentation and building better habitat networks.
Our own submission to the recent call from the Forestry Commission for views on the way forward for woodland expansion in England reinforces this. I have included an extract here, based on part of our submission, to illustrate that Andy Byfield is not alone in seeking to prompt a conversation about a more considered approach, one that builds on the common shorthand phrase ‘right tree, right place’:
“Key to understanding the need for more woodland in the UK is understanding the locational dependency of many of the benefits that trees and woods can deliver. These wider public goods delivered by the natural environment are often referred to today as ‘ecosystem services’. Whilst not true of all, many of these benefits rely on choosing the right location and configuration of woodland in relation to the ‘service’ being delivered and interactions with other land uses and habitats. In identifying the need for an increase in tree and forest cover we should be clear about the benefits and be specific about how and where they are delivered. It is this locational understanding which brings real benefits from tree cover. Not tree planting for its own sake, but tree planting because it achieves real value for society and for the environment.
Woodland is a rich and important terrestrial habitat. Ancient woodland and ancient trees in particular support a wide range of wildlife from soil organisms to fungi, a spectacular array of plants, invertebrates, small mammals and birds. Woodland creation can contribute to buffering existing habitat, and to the development of better functioning and more resilient habitat networks.
This is clearly recognised in the Natural Environment White Paper and is now a common characteristic of the work underway on Nature Improvement Areas, Local Nature Partnerships and in the revision of Natural Character Areas. The case for a significant expansion of native woodland is well supported by a range of conservation interests – but this support is often rightly qualified by the desire to ensure that existing high value open habitats and valued cultural features are not damaged by planting and that the guiding principles of building better habitat networks underpins the overall approach.”
But it’s important not to oversimplify the question. Whilst many people may have an aspiration to expand our trees and woods there are many more who own or manage the land, who have objectives and views of the world which will differ. Farming, food security, traditional practices, other habitats, recreation, carbon, energy, development… and on and on; all competing for land use. To support the vision of a landscape rich in trees and woodland we have to understand where that vision sits in the context of the wider landscape, the politics of land use, the motivations of land owners, and the external and changing environment.
The Government are due to respond to the Panel’s recommendations in January. I for one would be more than happy to see a strong welcome for the Panel’s recommendations on a major increase in woodland expansion being set clearly in the context of the Natural Environment White Paper and Lawton principles. That will take a bit of joined up thinking in Defra. I can only hope that the current focus on ash disease does not completely eclipse their capacity to think for the medium term too.
It’s not too late to add your voice to the many already calling on the Government to accept the Panel’s recommendations and help to secure the future for our trees, woods and forests.
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation