The appointment of Sir William Worsley as the Government’s first Tree Champion is welcome news in the face of our country’s ailing woodlands. Tree planting in England is at its lowest level for a generation and latest figures from the World Bank show that coverage is now down to 13 per cent in the UK, far lower than the European average of 38 per cent. The Government’s recognition for the need to do more to support our woodlands was brought to the fore in 2015 when a pledge was made to plant 11 million more trees by 2020. However, by this time last year the Forestry Commission reported that fewer than 2.5 million more trees had been planted since the target was set. The lack of progress has been attributed to the lack of a department to drive the initiative.
Sir William has been appointed in the role for one year, with a commitment of only four days per month, so, with a tough brief ahead, where should he focus his efforts? Let’s start with plant biosecurity, as an increasing number of pests and diseases are imported each year to which our well-adapted species are often defenceless. Longer quarantine periods, more thorough checks and outright bans on imported materials are all worthy considerations to help tackle these challenges. Sir William will need to consider how to balance these increased, but slower, defences, with the expected speed of trade.
Another key issue is that of the unnecessary felling of street trees. Space in our cities is at a premium and demand for housing is high, which makes the question of how best to go about incorporating trees into our urban areas an increasingly complex one.
There are incentives for planting trees and funding available from the EU to undertake initiatives. Yet the country is still failing to raise levels of planting sufficiently. We are already experiencing an increase in demand for timber, and while there are many issues affecting trees, timber prices are at the highest they have been for some time. This is helping owners to open the forest gate again to see what is going on in the woodland. The creation of a new Tree Champion role highlights the importance of the cause to Government, on which basis there is now real potential to build this into a wave of action on trees at last.