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National Tree Week: There's no time like the present to plant perennials for the future, according to The Tree Council

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” says The Tree Council’s Director General Pauline Buchanan Black. “The second best time is now. We need to plant trees now for the future.”

There’s an urgency to her message – the UK currently lingers at the bottom of the league table when it comes to woodland cover, which matters, says Buchanan Black, not only because trees make beautiful places to live, work and enjoy, but have other undervalued benefits, from health to combating climate change. It’s these benefits The Tree Council, along with other groups such as the Woodland Trust, are promoting during National Tree Week (Nov 27 to Dec 5). They’re also backing Defra’s government campaign, The Big Tree Plant, which aims to encourage more tree-planting not just in the countryside, but in towns and cities. “Areas where there are more trees have less crime, better health and cleaner air, higher property value…” says Buchanan Black. “There are practical physical and fiscal benefits to having trees on your street.”

The Woodland Trust have set an ambitious target of getting 20 million trees planted in the UK every year, doubling our woodland cover. They’ve launched a MyView online tool which the public can use to see how their local area could benefit from trees and added greenery, then send the information to local councilors. Again, the benefits aren’t simply aesthetic. “Trees are host to a huge amount of wildlife and a really important part of the ecosystem in the UK,” says Sue Holden, chief executive of Woodland Trust. “But research also says people have better physical and mental health if they have green places near where they live. Childhood asthma is lower where you’ve got more trees.”

Trees also have a strong role to play in protecting the environment. They’ve proved useful at stopping flooding and soil erosion, both of which are expected to become a greater problem in future. They improve air and water quality. And ‘greening up’ urban areas could help combat rising temperatures in towns and cities. “In Manchester, for example, there’s been a calculation that you could lower the temperature by two degrees by having significant planting of trees,” says Pam Warhurst, chair of the Forestry Commission. “Trees store carbon, provide shade and oxygenate the area. We need to take the cooling of our cities much more seriously.”

Given the consensus on the benefits and Defra’s push to get people planting more trees, it seems strange that the government recently announced the massive selling off of forest and woodland in England to help reduce the country’s budget deficit. Exact figures are yet to be announced, but it’s been reported that over half of England’s state-owned forests could be sold, potentially worth five billion pounds.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described the possible sale to private developers as ‘an unforgiveable act of environmental vandalism.’ Thousands signed an online petition.

Sue Holden fears the sale might be dangerous short-term thinking to raise funds which could see areas of valuable biodiversity and natural beauty permanently lost. “We really would be shooting ourselves in the foot to think this is a short-term quick fix. We really need to think about the long-term value of nature conservation in the UK and the public benefits.”

The government suggested charities and local communities could take control of the woodlands. But the Woodland Trust say they, and others whose priority is conservation, are unlikely to be able to afford to buy the land, which instead will probably go to commercial interests for development, such as roads, hotels and golf courses. “The number of people who’ve signed the 38 Degrees petition shows there’s huge interest in our forests, partly because of the nature conservation value and partly because of the benefits of the forest estates that are open to the public - fantastic mountain biking, walking, camping...,” says Holden. “A lot of that could go if they get sold off to the private sector.”

Pauline Buchanan Black is keen to hear the outcome of the public consultation Defra Business Plan recently announced for Jan-May 2011, but says: “It wouldn’t be sensible for sales to be made to developers or commercial operators who cause a resource such as ancient woodland or forestry to be destroyed. I’d be very surprised if a government that’s launching a national tree-planting campaign is going to endorse sales to anything other than a sympathetic buyer.”

It’s how the forests are managed, not who owns them, that’s important, argues Pam Warhurst. “What matters is how we protect biodiversity and natural habitats, and whether the land will have public access. There will be a movement in the ownership. We shouldn’t be dogmatic but we should protect what’s important to us.”

She believes the public need to make their voices heard.  “I welcome the debate. For too long, trees have been undervalued. I think if the overwhelming voice of the people was that they wants a particular model of ownership, I would’ve thought that the government would want to listen to that.”

For more, see treecouncil.org.uk, woodlandtrust.org.uk, moretreesmoregood.org.uk/myview, forestry.gov.uk To sign the 38 Degrees’ Save Our Forests petition, go to 38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests#petition   

Sue Holden of Woodland Trust on endangered ancient woodland
Ancient woodland is land that’s been continually wooded since at least 1600AD. Some may even link back to original wildwood that covered the UK 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. Ancient woods are our richest sites for wildlife and are full of cultural heritage. They are irreplaceable, the UK’s equivalent of the Rainforest.
- Oaken wood, Maidstone Kent: Gallagher Ltd has submitted a planning application to extend their existing quarry at the expense of precious and irreplaceable ancient woodland. If permission’s granted, over 33 hectares of ancient woodland will be lost forever. The decision’s due sometime in the New Year.
- A21 road-widening scheme: Ancient woodland is under threat from plans to widen the A21 between Pembury and Tonbridge in Kent. The scheme will result in the loss of around nine hectares (22 acres) of ancient woodland. It’s currently on hold until the spending review – we know it will return.
- South Rannoch woods: The proposed development threatened to destroy approximately 216 hectares of ancient woodland and 187 hectares of associated woodland. Rannoch was a massive proposal with many bizarre ideas. It’s not unusual for ‘radical’ proposals to be put in to planning authorities so as to make future applications look like a compromise. But eradication of Ancient Woodland can never be compromised as it is too rare.
- Broughton Woods: Around 25 per cent of all North Linconlshire’s ancient woodland was at risk at this ancient PAWS site when it became threatened by a golf course. The site’s now parcelled up and ready for auction so its future is uncertain.

Bob Press, Natural History Museum’s Associate Keeper of Botany, on Britain’s changing treescape
“UK flora and fauna is one of the best recorded and studied in the world. This is true especially for trees in the wild. We know much less about anything in urban areas. The Natural History Museum started a public participation project in April 2010 to find out about cherry trees, then we opened it out to look at all trees. We’re looking at urban areas – parks, streets, but also gardens, and the only people who can tell us about those are the private owners. The survey will run for at least three years. There are shifts all over the UK. Partly with urban trees, it’s down to fashion. When people decide they want to plant trees, they go to the local garden centre and buy what’s available. You only need someone like Alan Titchmarsh on a TV programme to say ‘This is a perfect tree for small gardens’ and people will buy it. Trees come in as people buy them for their gardens, then seeds escape and spread to the countryside and urban areas. The British landscape is always evolving. Sometimes things you add will push out what you’ve got. We’re also looking at what’s spreading and sources of potential pests. You can get knock-on effects on other wildlife, individual species that depend on specific tree species. But the whole big picture can change too - you can change the face of Britain by changing trees. People should be interested in trees. Especially if you live in towns, they’re one of our few connections with nature, but they also effect the environment. They’re useful things that effect every one of us.” nhm.ac.uk