George Monbiot on native trees


Waxwings depend on a good supply of berries from rowan and hawthorn to survive the winter

George Monbiot’s recent Guardian blog – Native trees help wildlife – so why do councils plant so many exotic ones? – echoes many of the feelings of the Woodland Trust. While there are many great exotic trees out there, our wonderful native trees are essential for providing homes and food for wildlife and we need more planting throughout the UK.

George says…

“The differences can be stark and remarkable: native trees tend to harbour far more wildlife than exotic species. Indigenous oak species, for example – according to the table extracted from scientific papers by the Offwell Woodland and Wildlife Trust – harbour 284 insect species in the UK. Birch supports 266. But horse chestnut, introduced from the Balkans, hosts only four.

Scots pine is associated with 91 species, larch, from elsewhere in Europe (or Japan), just 17. Sycamore, which comes from southern Europe, carries 15 species; the London plane tree, which is a hybrid between two exotic species, supports just one.

The highly invasive rhododendron species (Rhododendron ponticum), which, introduced from southern Europe or the near east, has colonised many of our woods, gives life to a grand total of zero insect species. Interestingly, this plant lived on the land which later became the British Isles during the last interglacial period. Something must have eaten it, or it would have overwhelmed the rest of the flora and dominated the ecosystem. Could it have been browsed by the straight-tusked elephant, or by one of our two woodland rhino species?

The reason is straightforward: our insects have co-evolved with the trees on which they feed, acquiring adaptations which allow them to cope with the chemicals and other defences with which those trees equip themselves. They have not evolved to feed on trees they have never encountered before. Acquiring this ability can take hundreds of thousands of years or more.”

“To help wildlife, we should plant more native trees. So why are nine out of every 10 trees planted by local authorities exotic?”

To read the rest of George’s blog click here to go to the Guardian website. You can also read our Wood Wise publication to find out more about the Woodland Trust’s work.

Kay Haw, Conservation Team


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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14 Responses to George Monbiot on native trees

  1. Andrew Lloyd says:

    I read George Monbiot’s article and thought it a fine idea. I know in Eastbourne, the council put alot of effort into planting and maintaining their stock of trees. Near me they have planted a number of Swedish Whitebeams, partly because I think they feel that the whitebeams flourish in urban environments and provide food for birds. The council also make an effort to look after their stock of Elms: one of the few remaining towns able to do so, since the 1970s.

    I often donate to their tree-planting schemes and will be in touch with them asking them about what kind of trees they plant.

  2. ray roberts says:

    The more I have dealt with planting trees over the years – and through many failures and successes – the more I have realized the accuracy of this article. Proper foliage color and development coincides with native species trees. They stay for the long haul better. Multiple other reasons to abide by the advice in this article.

  3. Tiffy Pay says:

    Surely these people are our elected officials and have, therefore, a remit to abide by our wishes and the needs of the commuity as a whole? Does not biodiversity and the safeguarding of our natural resources count towards that remit?

  4. Ash says:

    You’re right Ken! You’d think a walk down a corridor would be the simplest thing! Unfortunately there are many large organisations out there that have very narrow views of the world. Cosed offices, closed minds!

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thanks for your comment Ash. We really do need more joined up thinking to effectively support the natural world.

  5. Christine says:

    Just had a look at the article, the picture at the start is labelled as an oak, does anyone else think it is a sweet chestnut? (An honorary native)

  6. Dysfunctional communication within councils is all too prevalent. I was once involved in the promotion of green compost (e.g. compost and soil improver made from composted green matter); we had councils where one department was making the stuff while the parks dept, was buying soil improver from external sources.

    As to why councils are planting ecologically low value foreign species – has anyone asked them why? Are these species cheaper? Are they easier to establish?

    • Kay Haw says:

      There is talk of some exotics being very resistant to pollution, but there are native species that are too.

  7. That’s what I’ve done in my fifteen years in this garden. It was a hill top field of three quarters of an acre of grassland, but now hosts many insect and bird species in and among the hundreds of trees and shrubs we’ve planted over the years, plus the casual vixen with cubs.

  8. Patricia Clawson says:

    It would also be great if people planted native trees and shrubs at the boundaries of their gardens instead of the quick growing conifers

    • Kay Haw says:

      I agree Patricia, native trees and shrubs make fantastic borders. If you need somethibng to help people out then hawthorn or blackthorn are good choices. And if you need tree borders to keep your privacy even in winter then beech and hornbeam retain their leaves even after they have browned.

  9. Ken Brown says:

    George Monbiot’s article on the inappropriate use of exotic species by local councils deserves very wide publicity. This problem seems to be an example of the inability of one council department to communicate effectively with another – and certainly of government conservation agencies’ failure to take advantage of an obvious opportunity to protect and enhance biodiversity at negligible cost. After all, many planning authorities maintain their own native tree and shrub stocks and are involved in native woodland protection schemes through their own forestry officers. Surely it’s not a big deal to walk down the corridor and have a chat with the people who are still planting exotics on roadside verges?

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