In the race to stem the loss of bio­di­ver­sity and off­set car­bon emis­sions through re­for­esta­tion, we may be guilty of not be­ing able to see the wood for the trees.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Richard Mabey

In the race to off­set car­bon emis­sions through re­for­esta­tion, na­ture writer Richard shares his view. “Our au­to­matic reflex to the need for more trees is that hu­mans must de­lib­er­ately plant them within a decade,” he says.

I’m loath to give suc­cour to Brazil’s odi­ous Pres­i­dent Bol­sonaro, who did lit­tle to stop the de­struc­tive fires in Ama­zo­nia last year. But he had a point when he re­buffed West­ern protests by ob­serv­ing that Brazil was sim­ply do­ing what Europe had done to its forests over the past few thou­sand years. The UK was par­tic­u­larly successful in its long pro­gramme of de­for­esta­tion. We cur­rently have about 12 per cent of land un­der trees, less than half the Euro­pean av­er­age. So it was good news when a raft of re­for­esta­tion plans and am­bi­tions sur­faced just a week be­fore news of the Ama­zo­nian fires broke. The Gov­ern­ment re­it­er­ated its very mod­est tar­gets, Tet­ley Tea an­nounced it was plant­ing a mil­lion trees, and Friends of the Earth in­sisted that Bri­tain should dou­ble its for­est cover in the next cou­ple of decades. This would make a con­tri­bu­tion to car­bon cap­ture, but noth­ing like the ex­trav­a­gant claims cur­rently be­ing made. In their first five years of growth, a mil­lion newly planted saplings would lock up the av­er­age car­bon emis­sions of no more than 100 cars over the same pe­riod.

Though trees fil­ter out pol­lu­tion, aid hu­man well-be­ing and pro­vide a rich sub­strate for an­i­mal life, could a whole­sale ded­i­ca­tion to tree-plant­ing to ame­lio­rate cli­mate change com­pro­mise other ur­gent con­ser­va­tion goals? There is, for a start, the ques­tion of where this con­sid­er­able area of tree-land (one and a half times the area of Wales) might be ac­com­mo­dated. Sec­ond-rate farm­land is the ob­vi­ous an­swer, but with food se­cu­rity now a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, this might not be avail­able. The var­i­ous fore­casts also talk vaguely of “poor qual­ity” land, which brings into fo­cus the heaths, bogs, com­mons and down­land (all good car­bon sinks, in­ci­den­tally) in which so much of the UK’s bio­di­ver­sity is sit­u­ated. Could tree plant­ing against global heat­ing come into head-on con­flict with ef­forts to min­imise the sixth mass ex­tinc­tion?

There are other ob­sta­cles when it comes to sit­ing. The Lake District – 2,300km² of sheep-rav­aged and eco­log­i­cally bar­ren fells – would be an ob­vi­ous tar­get. As early as 1810, the Lakes’ cham­pion, poet Wil­liam Wordsworth, cel­e­brated the nat­u­ral tree­ing of the hills, in a beau­ti­ful and eco­log­i­cally pre­cise ac­count: “From low and shel­tered places, veg­e­ta­tion trav­els

up­wards to the more ex­posed, and the young plants are pro­tected, and to a cer­tain de­gree fash­ioned, by those that have pre­ceded them... Con­trast the lib­erty that en­cour­ages, and the law that lim­its, this joint work of na­ture and time, with the dis­heart­en­ing ne­ces­si­ties, re­stric­tions and dis­ad­van­tages, un­der which the ar­ti­fi­cial planter must pro­ceed...”

The sheep farm­ers could be com­pen­sated, but it might not be so easy to buy off the 20 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors for whom the Lakes rep­re­sent the epit­ome of English scenic beauty.

There is also the ma­jor ques­tion of how these trees might be prop­a­gated, re­gard­less of site. Our au­to­matic reflex to the need for more trees is that hu­mans must de­lib­er­ately plant them – an odd as­sump­tion when you con­sider that trees have per­fectly ad­e­quate re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems and are mar­vel­lously adept at prop­a­gat­ing them­selves. Any piece of open ground with seed trees not too far away will turn into a recog­nis­able young wood within a decade, if left to it­self. I have seen birch-sal­low woods spring­ing up spon­ta­neously on derelict in­dus­trial sites in East Lon­don and min­ing spoiltips in the Mid­lands. When I was help­ing with sur­vey work for Flora of Hert­ford­shire, oak seedlings were in the top five ‘weed’ species in any arable field with oaks in the sur­round­ing hedgerows. As for all those prize habi­tats of chalk grass­land, fens and the like, they are all so ea­ger to turn into wood­land that re­mov­ing their trees makes the na­ture con­ser­va­tion busi­ness the most ac­tive de­for­ester in the coun­try.

One Scot­tish laird planted up a hill­side with the let­ters of his es­tate’s name, on a scale that would have made it vis­i­ble from space.

But does it mat­ter how the trees ar­rive, provided they do? I think it does – on prac­ti­cal, eco­nomic, eco­log­i­cal and eth­i­cal grounds. There is an un­chal­lenged as­sump­tion that a col­lec­tion of planted trees con­sti­tutes a wood. It doesn’t, ex­cept in the long term. A new plan­ta­tion is more like an ar­bo­real in­ten­sive-care ward. The young saplings, of­ten even aged and sourced from a nar­row ge­netic source, are planted in reg­i­mented rows, and the trees po­si­tioned where the planter wants them, not where they would nat­u­rally ‘choose’ to grow. They are staked, which pre­vents their root sys­tems spread­ing and adapt­ing to wind-sway, and pruned to make their shapes con­form to con­ven­tional tree im­ages – in ecologist Oliver Rack­ham’s phrase, “gateposts with leaves”. All scrub around the trees is cleared reg­u­larly, and the ground of­ten mown like a lawn. In ad­di­tion, planters are in­structed to ster­ilise – with weed­killer or plastic – a wide cir­cle of ground around each sapling’s trunk, as trees sup­pos­edly can­not com­pete with grass – a cu­ri­ous myth, reg­u­larly trot­ted out on rep­utable gar­den­ing pro­grammes, which is eas­ily re­but­ted by look­ing at any patch of un­grazed down­land, with its for­est of as­pi­ra­tional yews and hawthorns thrust­ing through the sward.

By con­trast, wood­land sprung nat­u­rally from seed sown by an­i­mals or carried on the wind, is self-sup­port­ing. It is in­trin­si­cally di­verse ge­net­i­cally, which as a bonus helps dis­ease re­sis­tance. The seedlings pros­per where the soil and ter­rain suits their species. They seem, mys­te­ri­ously, to sur­vive with­out wa­ter­ing or stak­ing. They grow up through a pro­tec­tive layer of bram­bles and scrub, which even­tu­ally pro­vides the wood’s nat­u­ral un­der­story. These scruffy be­gin­nings may be one of the rea­sons be­hind our cul­tural hos­til­ity to­wards nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion. In our ob­ses­sion with tidi­ness, any woody growth not ob­vi­ously planted by us is dis­missed de­ri­sively as ‘scrub’ – which the land­scape ar­chi­tect Nan Fair­brother no­to­ri­ously de­scribed as “the state of orig­i­nal sin in our land­scape”.

There are plenty of ex­am­ples of how nat­u­ral re­for­esta­tion works in the field. Fol­low­ing World War I, large ar­eas of ne­glected English farm­land ‘tum­bled down’ to wood. There was also spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion in the woods of south­ern Eng­land in the wake of the great storm of 1987. I toured many of the worst af­fected ar­eas the fol­low­ing sum­mer. In places, it was pos­si­ble to see, ad­ja­cent to one another, ar­eas that had been cleared and re­planted and ar­eas that had been aban­doned. The for­mer pre­sented a de­press­ing vista of stunted saplings strug­gling out of bare earth. The lat­ter had hec­tic sheaves of nat­u­rally re­gen­er­ated maple, ash, birch and beech thriv­ing un­der the shel­ter of the fallen trees. Un­tidy, but un­de­ni­ably a bur­geon­ing nat­u­ral wood. There are com­pa­ra­ble ex­am­ples across the tem­per­ate zone. In­dige­nous ever­green wood­land is in­creas­ing dra­mat­i­cally in the Mediter­ranean, partly as a re­sult of the coloni­sa­tion of (sadly) aban­doned vine­yards and olive groves. The rich and ex­ten­sive sec­ond-growth wood­lands along the east­ern seaboard of the United States, which cover 90 per cent of the land in some re­gions, are a con­se­quence of the agri­cul­tural de­pres­sion that stretched from the late 19th cen­tury un­til the 1930s.

Tree plant­ing can be a valu­able and nec­es­sary strat­egy in many sit­u­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, ashde­pleted hedgerows, which may need species that are not lo­cally na­tive; ur­ban round­abouts; pub­lic parks; school na­ture cor­ners; small and iso­lated sites that are un­likely to get much nat­u­ral coloni­sa­tion, and ar­eas a long dis­tance from seed trees. But I’m not sure this ex­plains why plant­ing is our de­fault po­si­tion, why what is – in ef­fect – cap­tive breed­ing is the first op­tion with trees, not the last re­sort. I sus­pect there are cul­tural and psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sures at work, be­yond the ob­jec­tive de­sire for more trees.

There are no records of woods be­ing planted in Bri­tain be­fore the mid 16th cen­tury. The fol­low­ing cen­tury, there was po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to plant oak be­cause of a pre­sumed short­age of naval tim­ber. But most his­to­ri­ans be­lieve this was just a war of spin be­tween the Roy­al­ist and Com­mon­wealth par­ties, and that no ac­tual short­age ex­isted.

(Rack­ham cal­cu­lated that an en­tire fleet of 25 ships could have been built with the oaks from just 1,000ha of cop­pice-with-stan­dards.)

The real surge in plant­ing took off in the 18th cen­tury, not out of pa­tri­o­tism, but from the zeal for ‘im­prove­ment’. Planted woods could im­prove your wealth, the look of your es­tate, your sta­tus. Ger­man for­est science, forstwisse­nschaft – the geo­met­ric plant­ing of trees to max­imise re­turn – be­came fash­ion­able. Landowners com­peted for prizes for the num­ber of trees they had planted, and the coniferi­sa­tion of Wales be­gan in this frenzy. One early 19th-cen­tury Scot­tish laird planted up a hill­side with the let­ters of his es­tate’s name, on a scale that would have made it vis­i­ble from space. The so­cial para­pher­na­lia that sur­rounds and some­times be­dev­ils mod­ern plant­ing – reg­i­men­ta­tion, tar­gets, pro­mo­tional stunts – was es­tab­lished more than two cen­turies ago.

The mod­ern en­thu­si­asm for plant­ing can be dated to the late 1950s and Jean Giono’s clas­sic The Man Who Planted Trees. This tells the mov­ing story of a French peas­ant in the first half of the 20th cen­tury, who re­vived a large stretch of the bar­ren land­scape of Provence by sow­ing acorns as he tended his sheep. Ex­cept that it wasn’t, as its read­ers pre­sumed, a true story, but a fic­tion. Giono had even joined in the sleight of hand by pub­lish­ing a fake photo of the peas­ant. The au­thor had lived through the hu­man (and tree) de­stroy­ing hor­ror of the World War I trenches, and had wanted to create a fa­ble about how plant­ing trees might be an act of repa­ra­tion for the dam­age we had in­flicted on the Earth.

And tree-plant­ing as a rit­ual of atone­ment con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor mo­ti­va­tion, from Plant a Tree in ’73 through all the suc­ceed­ing hub­bub of fund-rais­ing cam­paigns, cor­po­rate spon­sors des­per­ate to es­tab­lish their green cre­den­tials, and civic pro­mo­tional events with the wrong trees in very wrong places. But be­hind the razzmatazz, plant­ing does have one great so­cial – rather than eco­log­i­cal – virtue. It helps peo­ple, chil­dren es­pe­cially, feel they are en­gaged with restor­ing the tree cover of the planet, to have a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. If non-in­ter­ven­tion en­tails our phys­i­cal ex­clu­sion from the pro­cesses of re­newal, a recog­ni­tion of our ir­rel­e­vance, where does that put us in the scheme of things as we try to re­dis­cover our place in na­ture?

But pa­ter­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity and cus­to­di­an­ship are dou­ble-edged feel­ings. They can eas­ily morph into a sense of en­ti­tle­ment to con­trol, to the be­lief that we have do­min­ion over na­ture, which led us into en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis in the first place. When I owned and ran a com­mu­nity wood in the Chilterns, we dis­cour­aged treeplant­ing and found that our helpers felt just as en­gaged (and as­ton­ished) be­ing wit­ness to the wood’s nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion. This process can not only be spec­tac­u­lar, and the most re­li­able way of es­tab­lish­ing tree cover, but gen­er­ate woody sys­tems that would never be dreamed of in or­gan­ised plant­ing – like the pur­ple-em­peror-at­tract­ing sal­low thick­ets on the rewil­ded Knepp es­tate.

In his fa­mous es­say On Lib­erty, the philoso­pher John Stu­art Mill sug­gested that al­low­ing be­ings “free­dom to” – per­mit­ting them to fol­low their own agen­das as sub­jects – lib­er­ated their “spon­tane­ity, orig­i­nal­ity, ge­nius”. He was talk­ing about hu­mans, but as we try to nar­row the gap be­tween our­selves and the nat­u­ral world, per­haps we could grant the po­ten­tial for such cre­ativ­ity to trees.

WANT TO COM­MENT? Should we stop con­trolled plant­ing and leave na­ture to set its own course? Email us at wildlifele­t­[email protected]­me­di­

Newly planted tree saplings are pro­tected by plastic sleeves, while the sur­round­ing ground is care­fully man­aged.

Top: Northamp­ton’s Althorp es­tate in the 18th cen­tury – just one ex­am­ple of the fash­ion for aes­thetic plant­ing. Mid­dle: Plant a Tree in ’73 was a Gov­ern­ment-spon­sored cam­paign. Bottom: the rewil­ded Knepp es­tate.

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