Failing to see the woods for the trees

There is little wonder the Government is falling so dismally short of its tree-planting targets


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Trees are “our allies in the fight against climate change but we need more of them”, the well meaning champions of copse and spinney The Woodland Trust tell us. 

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) echoed this sylvan refrain. Their veteran oak of a chairman Lord Deben (the former Cabinet minister, John Selwyn Gummer) recommended to the government that the UK must increase its woodland coverage from the current 13 per cent of total land, to at least 17 per cent. In its “stretch” scenario, the CCC suggested 19 per cent of UK land cover should become woodland by 2050 if we are to reach net zero carbon. 

During the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson grabbed a shiny spade and vowed a Conservative government would provide funding between 2020 and 2025 for 30 million trees to be heeled in annually over 30,000 hectares. Not to be out done, the Liberal Democrats claimed they would plant 60 million trees per year over 40,000 hectares in the same timescale — obviously a Lib Dem forester works on a tighter planting density than a Tory one. Meanwhile, on planet Corbyn, Labour’s back of a seed packet planting proposal arrived at the incredible figure of 300 million trees by 2025 and 1 billion by 2030, which by my woodland creation calculator, is a maple’s shade under 2 million hectares.  

In May 2021, erstwhile DEFRA secretary of state George Eustice provided the rationale for Boris’s arboreal promises by stating, “Tree planting will form a central pillar in the efforts to reach net zero emissions by 2050.” Admittedly this central pillar turned out to more of a clothes prop when compared with the manifesto pledge: 7,500 hectares of new woodland would be planted each year until the end of this parliament admitted Eustice with scarcely a blush to his cheeks. 

The Forestry Commission’s Annual Report for 2021-22 reveals that even this figure was an optimistic punt rather than a pledge. In 2019-20, 2,360 hectares of trees were planted, the following year 2,052 ha and in 2021-22 a mere 2,255 hectares became woodland. In truth, the sum of three years’ worth of planting had failed to reach the target figure slated for one year. 

It is little wonder that these tree planting targets were missed

It is little wonder that these tree planting targets were missed by such a wide margin. In the course of my career I have planted more trees and hedges than most and one piece of advice I will offer free of charge — you can’t plant trees if you don’t have any trees to plant. In brief, we don’t grow anywhere near enough hardwood trees in Britain.

Ross Guyton is a co-director of Oakbank, a company that specialises in providing adroit advice and bespoke seed mixes for regenerative agriculture and farmland conservation schemes. Ross’s particular area of expertise lies in woodland management and creation. He is a bluff ol’ Norfolk boy, as those of us on the correct side of the Waveney would say. “We haven’t got the trees to fulfil the political aspiration, it’s as simple as that” he told me. 

“The clamour to plant new woods to achieve net zero isn’t unique to Britain, all of Europe is doing the same,” he says, “and we are all chasing after saplings to try to fulfil the environmental targets set at Cop26.” This does seem a giant redwood sized oversight on the part of the political ranks. There are remarkably few commercial scale tree nurseries in the UK.  Most sell their stock in what is known as “bare root” condition. 

Saplings are grown from seed in open ground, these young whips are then lifted to order during the dormancy of winter to then be transported and immediately planted in their permanent location. This leads to no little logistical pressures on achieving the planting rates that government has set. Bare root trees can only be lifted and re-planted from November to March if they are to stand any chance of surviving — planting up 7,500 hectares-worth in five months is a challenge in any woodsman’s book. 

The canny Ross has set up a new nursery in partnership with an entrepreneurial farmer, an expert nurseryman and a seasoned arborist. They seek to alleviate the logistical problems caused by the short five-month planting window. Their nursery, west of Norwich in Breckland, currently has a crop of 250,000 young trees ready to go. Next year they will double this supply. 

Grown from seed in cells of non-peat-based compost, the young trees thrive in this medium with remarkable vigour and rather than bearing a dormant root, they boast a fibrous and fully active root ball. This means these saplings, although marginally more expensive to produce than their bare rooted brethren, can be planted in all but the driest of months thereby increasing the planting window.  

The sourcing of seed is a challenge in its own right and another logistical challenge that was missed by the Westminster tree fans. Provenance is key, seed requires a plant passport which proves the bio-security of the product thereby reducing the risks of disease — think of the skeletal hulks of our native elms brought low by Dutch elm disease or the countless ash that wither and die from Chalara. Ridiculously, the collection of seed in the UK relies almost exclusively upon a small band of semi-amateurs to undertake the sourcing. As Ross ruefully admitted “If we didn’t have a few hippies gamely out their picking up acorns and beech masts, we wouldn’t have anything to plant”. 

The Forestry Commission’s annual report shows that the government is aware of these failings. There is now a Tree Production Innovation Fund in place to financially support new nurseries such as Ross’s and move the onus of seed collection away from the band of selfless hippies. A new Woodland Creation Offer has been recently introduced in a bid to financially incentivise more landowners to plant more trees. This grant of course is only of any use if you can source trees in the first place and as we have seen that is a challenge, the fact that the grant itself is an administrative minefield hardly helps either. 

The true tragedy in all this however is not merely that the policies for creating new woods were created without a moment’s logistical forethought. The fundamental Conservative principle of looking after what you have before you buy new has been ignored. According to the Forestry Commission, 42 per cent of England’s existing woodland is unmanaged. Recently planted woods are in a similarly parlous state thanks to the 2022 summer drought.  If the government is to realise its objectives for net zero, nature recovery and biodiversity then these unloved woods need management. 

A “Woodlands into Management Forestry Innovation Fund” was only launched this year. The Fund purports to develop and test ideas to help improve the ecological condition of woodlands, which may strike many as being a bit late in the day for a bit of copse-based R&D. The chances of these woods coming under management, and thereby improving their environmental potential, is once more threatened by shortages, not of trees this time but of human resource. The Institute of Chartered Foresters sent a paper to DEFRA in October 2021 highlighting their “serious concerns about the skills shortage in our sector, which we believe puts climate targets at risk.” 

That skills shortage is so stark that the Institute estimates a 72 per cent increase in forestry workers is required to achieve a workforce capable of fulfilling government woodland management and creation targets. Failure to address this they say will “lead to poorly planted and managed woodlands, urban trees that do more harm than good, and the wrong trees in the wrong places.” 

It is a curious state of affairs that politicians of the right and environmentalists of the left both have an avidity to paint themselves green in the dappled light of woods, yet neither are prepared to grasp the thorny branch and do something practical about securing a meaningful tree stock and a workforce that might care for woods. Net Zero for effort. 

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