Seven years in the life of a tree is nothing. A few rings of growth, centimetre of leave litter, length of conifer branch, but where, since the scuppered 2011 forest sell-off, has the ‘enterprise’ around trees gone?
I must declare an interest in knotty matters. My father worked for the Forestry Commission (100 years old next year) as a District Officer in the New Forest, Cumbria, west Scotland and north Wales. Lucky us as a family being moved around wild, wet, woody western parts of Britain – all in the name of tree planting and management to increase tree cover from an historic low centuries ago. If the UK was the first country in the world to urbanise (over 50% living in cities) in 1861, no wonder we’ve burnt and cleared woodland to build ships, fuel industry, prop pits, feed masses and then fearful post-WW2, sought to increase our self-sufficiency in timber.
It’s not a clear-cut matter when it comes to the public’s love of trees, squeamishness towards chainsaws, fussiness on tree species, fear of venturing too far into them (we prefer open woodland savanna), and outrage ensures if contemplating selling public forests. When, in a wide ranging interview, I asked the Secretary of State about leadership in tree planting from the government, Mr Gove’s reply was luke-warm – mirroring this BBC ‘reality’ check. At risk of mixing my metaphors, and not dissing the acorn in favour of the cone, the Woodland Trust is an environmental campaigning charity focused on native trees (broadleaves mainly) who probably didn’t enjoy one of my Times letters on ash dieback, but did enjoy my Nature Notebook praising their tree handout.
I realised how selective we are over trees when interviewing another politician (then Shadow Rural Affairs Min – now Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee) 8 years ago. Mary Creagh gave me her own copy of a government report ‘Combating Climate Change – a role for forests’ (the Read Report), with the impression, that while no doubt important, it was quite a dense read. It is. But also slightly inconvenient as to not fitting the current narrative of native-only please or finding much space in the Agriculture Bill.
Woodland business (sounds so much ‘nicer’ than forestry industry), is a long term issue.
Climate is the biggest ‘influencer’. Beech are finding it harder to survive in the UK, flooding and wind-blow knock trees down, hot weather incites forest fires in young plantations, and pest-vectored diseases thrive in the UK’s warm damp climate. Compounding this are complex wildlife conservation conundrums. Welfare issues over enforced red deer and mountain hare culls; ground-nesting hen harriers and curlews threatened by both habitat loss to afforestation as well as crows and foxes predators living in sitka spruce luxury. Red squirrels, goldcrests, fungi all love conifers of any ilk; merlin, black grouse have adapted to live on the fringes of them and pioneer tree planting has always been a tool against invasive bracken in the uplands.
When my father left the Forestry Commission in 1989, he undertook a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and used knowledge gleaned on his global travels to become an early instigator of Continuous Cover Forestry in the UK – a more nuanced form of forest management than merely ‘plant, thin, clear fell, repeat’. In his own transition in forestry practice, perhaps he has been able to critically argue the pros and cons over changing landscapes evolving on a continuum ebbing and flowing in response to policy, climate, markets, and public opinion.
While as a nation we may currently be more interested in ‘forest bathing’ within stroll or mountain bike reach of a woodland tearoom, let’s keep an eye on the stats, and to paraphrase Strictly Come Dancing…….’keep planting!’