Friends of the Earth has organised a lobby of councillors across the country asking them to support doubling of tree cover. I support that objective. We must plant trees to create a carbon reservoir to slow climate change, boost wildlife and improve public health. But should it be a wave of small woodland schemes or a huge project like a Marches National Forest?
We must get this right. That means selecting the right species of trees, ensuring we have enough skilled arboriculturists to manage woodland, planning for public access and ensuring a market for the harvested timber. Timber is a long term crop, so we must ensure that tenants and landowners have the right incentives and support.
“I urge you to support doubling tree cover in our local authority area by 2045 at the latest, as part of an ambitious local Climate Action Plan. Please ask the cabinet member responsible for this issue to commit to this.”
That’s the message from more than a dozen people who have emailed me in recent days. It makes sense. Back in the summer, the authoritative Committee on Climate Change said we must plant at least 30,000 hectares of woodland every year in Britain. That’s more than double the number of trees planted in 2018. Within a decade, we must plant an area nearly the size of Shropshire. That’s challenging but quite possible.
Around 13% of Britain is wooded. A century ago, woodland covered under 5% of the landscape following depletion during the First World War and earlier conflicts. A huge national drive, led by the Forestry Commission, created plantations across the country over the several decades, including many in South Shropshire. We need a drive on that scale as part of our efforts to tackle the climate emergency. But in our rush to ease the climate emergency, we must not plant impenetrable conifer forests with low levels of biodiversity. Our planet has a biodiversity crisis as well as climate crisis.
I support the request to double tree cover in Shropshire. I like the fact it is expressed as an area target, not numbers of trees. This general election has been an auction of promises on just about everything, including trees. The Greens promise to plant 700 million trees. Labour only talks about one million in its manifesto but Jeremy Corbyn has since ramped this up to two billion trees – three every second. The Lib Dems promise 60 million. The Tories want to plant 30,000 hectares of woodland a year.
It makes more sense to talk about the area of wooded landscape rather than trees numbers. If the target is expressed in numbers, we will be driven towards dense planting. That will reduce the community value of the forest estate and limit its contribution to boosting biodiversity. A target expressed in terms of numbers of trees also doesn’t take account of how woodland grows.
I confess that it is around forty years since I studied paleoethnobotany at university and attended talks by the legendary Oliver Rackham. But the principles of woodland growth haven’t really changed. Healthy woodland is not a monoculture but a succession of different species, the quicker growing shrubs and trees giving way to longer lived, taller species. Today, young trees like oaks and beech planted in new woodlands are sheltered by “nurses”– faster growing trees such as birch and larch. The nurses are felled to allow the bigger trees to grow. That means it makes much more sense to count hectares rather than the number of trees.
The most recent forest inventory I can find for Shropshire is a decade old. That shows tree cover of 8.5% – 24,500 hectares – roughly six times the size of Shrewsbury. The proposal from the petitioners is to double that. We need to think about how best to achieve this ambitious target.
We could double woodland in one huge scheme. Working with neighbouring councils along Offa’s Dyke, we could plant a Marches National Forest stretching from Clee in the Shropshire Hills AONB down to Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley AONB. It could stretch from the Brecon Beacons National Park to the Malvern Hills AONB.
Or we could encourage smaller local schemes.
Probably we should do both. Building from a lot of local woods to a bigger vision. Supporting smaller landowners and farmers. Not pumping up the profits of corporate giants and the biggest landowners who can wait fifty years for a profit.
Around 65% of Shropshire woodland is broadleaf, the rest conifers. We must aim for much more broadleaf.
We need to support the farmers changing from yearly crops to a long production cycle. There are food crops from woodland. Fruit, nuts, fungi. Wild boar. But we cannot double the nation’s woodland without a move to paying public money for public goods to landowners and farmers. That policy is supported by most of the political combatants in the election. Trees are a public good. Promoting biodiversity. Sequestrating carbon. Creating beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. Reducing flooding.
Tourism will be important. Who will be first to spot the Bigfoot – aka the Welsh Yeti – if we have Marches National Forest? More seriously, tourism is a major part of farm diversification and essential for the survival of small rural towns. Local access is just as important. Encouraging people to walk, cycle, explore and relax is an important part of the public heath agenda.
There are some tough problems in decarbonisation out there. The cement, brick and steel industries among them. We can help decarbonise these industries by using more wood in construction. Modular houses can be really energy efficient. Where we need to move timber a long distance from sawmill to fabrication centres, we should use rail for most of the journey.
Twigs and branches can be fed with other organic material into anaerobic digesters to generate renewable power. That could be a local power solution. Ideal for a rural county like Shropshire.
Trees are great. Everyone should go out and hug one. Everyone should plant one.
We need to brainstorm ideas about how to double the tree cover in Shropshire and beyond. I am convinced it is the right thing to do.