In its 2013 response to the Independent Panel on Forestry, Government stated that it believed there was scope for expanding England’s woodland cover significantly. It is a shame that such positive rhetoric seems to have quickly disappeared as the spectre of at least 2 years without new tree planting grants in England looms large. Existing grant schemes will continue, but no new tree planting grants will be awarded in 2014 or 2015.
Recent research by Forestry Commission on landowner attitudes found that “Overall the evidence reports generally negative attitudes towards woodland creation held by landowners in the UK”. It takes patience and persistence to persuade a landowner to make a far-reaching decision to plant trees. Such a decision requires stability and confidence in the future, even with the broad benefits trees and woodlands bring. While the Trust’s message around woodland creation supporting productive farming is definitely being well-received, for example, some of the benefits can be quite complicated – for example, the impacts trees can make on flood alleviation, soil erosion and nitrate run-off – and do need time to be absorbed. Reasons for not planting are many and varied; some believe that the capital value of their land will be lowered or that the land should be farmed. Others think that there is a lack of both short- and long-term financial incentives, and lack of advice and understanding is also key.
The Government’s cavalier attitude towards planting grants is not going to inspire many landowners that government is truly interested in forestry – why should they, the landowner, bother even considering trees as an option?
And what about the wider forestry sector? Forestry contracting is a fickle and hard world to make a half decent living in at the best of times, and countless studies have identified the insubstantial contracting base as a real deterrent to taking UK forestry forward. There are some fabulous contractors and consultants across the country, who make a substantial proportion of their living from woodland creation – what are they supposed to do for the next 2 years? Does Government really think that they are all going to be around in 2016, ready like eager dogs to pick up where they left off? I have had more than one conversation with contractors and consultants who really fear for their future.
And what about the much-lauded “Grown in Britain” campaign? Our nursery sector could be a key contributor towards this, supplying a trusted source of home-grown, disease-free trees. What are they supposed to do for the next 2 years… and how can they plan for 2016? Bare root trees will take 2 years to grow once the seed has been sourced, container grown trees can mostly be ready in 12 months. How can they have any idea what demand for trees will be like in 2016 and beyond? Surely this is just going to push people back to buying continental stock once again with all the disease threats that have materialized through the likes of ash dieback.
What’s at stake? In 2012 and 2013, 2,600 hectares were planted each year in England funded through government grants; at between 1,100 and 1,800 trees per hectare this equates to more than 5,000,000 trees planted over that period. This is what will be lost, at a minimum, over the next two years because of this (unprecedented and unnecessary) gap in funds. The Trust is calling on the new Forestry Minister to provide a solution in the form of interim grants; over 25,500 people had signed our petition in support within 7 days and it already has the backing of many in the sector including the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) which told us “we support this 100%”.
You can’t turn woodland creation on and off. I would have thought that the Government learnt that during the last RDP hiatus? So much positive talk but so much short-sightedness. Forestry is a long-term business: let’s see some long-term thinking to give it the support that it so richly deserves.
John Tucker, Director of Woodland Creation