How do we double tree cover to slow climate change, boost wildlife and improve public health – a Marches National Forest?

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.

There were no trees in this community area ten years ago.
Should we think big by planting small?

“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.

6 thoughts on “How do we double tree cover to slow climate change, boost wildlife and improve public health – a Marches National Forest?

  1. Wood pasture is a more natural environment than total tree cover as it allows for different browsing species to co-exist, and boosts flora species.

    Has anyone read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree?.
    Very interesting and thought-provoking.

    Croft Castle have been developing wood pasture on old conifer plantations that were clear-felled about 5 years ago.

  2. Well said, Andy. You are way ahead of everyone else on this critical issue. I wish I’d had the chance to hear Oliver Rackham!

  3. The trees can develop an entirely different economy where houses are built of wood (flame retardant and waterproof). Food could be grown round them. One is mushrooms. With a lot of thinking a wooden area can be very diverse.

  4. Excellent suggestion for a Marches forest.

    We are facing a climate and ecological emergency and must act as if it is an emergency.

    It may help us to understand the pace of change we need if we reflect on what changes were achieved in very little time in WW2, when land armies were mobilised. A similar approach can achieve rapid planting, and we must challenge the politicians, law makers and others to make these decisions and get moving right away in order to facilitate doubling of woodland by 2025.

    I look forward to hearing from Shropshire Council at their upcoming meeting on 19 December how they are going to organise the Climate Action Partnership they committed to last May, and whether this partnership will be given a clear mandate to plan the woodland we need, with a promise of funds for implementation. Clearly Shropshire Council will need to liaise with central Government to coordinate this across counties. Perhaps you can, as a councillor, ask for a progress report from Council on where they have got to in such liaison to date and whether central government is aligned to such a goal?

    It is also important that the Council builds its capabilities and resources to start planning the rollout of new woodland. They will learn some of this if they focus on achieving the promised 350,000 trees over the next two years along the road to ramping up planting rates.

    Some members of the Council may fear that the scale of the development is too difficult, and may benefit from video conferencing (before recognising the climate emergency they may have been tempted to fly!) with places where such areas of planting are an annual routine, such as Canada. I worked as a tree planter in Canada in my youth and can put them in touch with one of the leading practitioners there, whose tree planting teams have planted 1 Billion trees since they were founded in the 1970s.

  5. What a superb article on trees and their potential in fighting climate change. I am hoping that Shropshire Council and all of the parish and town councils in South Shropshire will endorse your approach, i.e., in essence many pockets of local tree cover and to top out with a Marches Forest. I’d also like to see Marches Local Enterprise Partnership get behind this strategic approach as a development project which requires our funds to prime it.

  6. Not letting a developer cut down 100 would be a start, or put a price on each one of say £10,000 and then charge the developer if they cut them down and use the money to replant.

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