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Seeing the wood for the trees: where next for our trees campaign?

Tree planting and climate breakdown were high up the agenda during the General Election. But we need to ramp up the level of ambition from landowners and politicians. From rewilding to agroforestry, campaigners Guy Shrubsole and Danny Gross discuss what’s needed to achieve systemic change and double tree cover.

Back in November, during National Tree Week, tens of thousands of people planted trees across the country. Friends of the Earth local groups in Oxford, Manchester, Nottingham, Enfield and elsewhere organised fantastic tree-planting days, working with local councils to gain access to land, and planting thousands of free trees that we provided.

But we all know that there’s a limit to what we can achieve by ourselves – and that planting a few trees alone isn’t going to save the world.

That’s why Friends of the Earth’s trees campaign is focused on political change, alongside practical projects. We’re calling for a doubling of UK tree cover to help address the climate emergency – and that’s not going to happen simply by planting a tree in everyone’s back garden. We need massive collective action to transform the way we use our land.  

So the work we’re doing with communities and supporters around the country is also about campaigning for councils, farmers, landowners and politicians to be more ambitious in restoring the UK’s tree cover.

Councils often own large expanses of land with plenty of space for more trees. Ask your Council to double tree cover

Councils

On the councils front, 4 local authorities have committed to doubling local tree cover so far – from the city of Bristol  to rural South Gloucestershire – and we’re confident many more will join. After all, many councils have declared climate emergencies, so we expect them to follow up on those declarations with ambitious local climate action plans  – with doubling tree cover a key part of these. You can play your part by urging your councillors to pledge to double tree cover. 

Landowners

Land ownership in Britain is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people and organisations. So if we’re going to transform the way our land is used, we need to engage with some of the larger landowners and encourage them to take action.

That’s why we’re excited to be working with students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities to campaign for their colleges – who comprise some of the largest landowners in the country  – to grow more trees on their sprawling acres.

And we’ve struck up a dialogue with the UK’s water companies, who collectively own almost half a million acres of land and who have pledged to plant 11 million trees. We hope they can be persuaded to go further still in the future. If they can do so, why not other big landowners too?

Politicians

2019 has been the year that trees became political. The General Election campaign has seen parties competing to out-do one another with the scale of their tree-planting pledges.

But, as we explain in more detail in another article, it’s crucial that eye-catching promises for millions of trees are properly scrutinised. Having a sense of the true scale of what’s needed is vital. The UK has 3 billion trees, covering 3 million hectares; doubling our tree cover will require an enormous programme of woodland creation, averaging 120 million new trees per year. Against that, only the Labour party’s pledge matched our level of ambition.

And while politicians have been keen to talk about millions of new trees, they’ve been more reluctant to talk about the funding needed to deliver them.

Our research has revealed that the UK Government currently spends just £1 per person on trees each year. To double tree cover, we estimate that we need 10 times that amount – around £500 million per year. That may sound a lot to you and me, but it’s a very small proportion of the Treasury’s annual budget. 

Seeing the wood for the trees

As trees have risen up the political agenda, there’s increasing discussion of some of the more complex issues surrounding how best to increase tree cover. In having these debates, it’s important we don’t get too fixated on there being just one, easy solution to the problem.

Fundamentally, responding to the climate and ecological emergencies requires a systemic change in the way we use our land. It means having a public debate about the sustainability of our diets, how much of our countryside we need for growing food, and how much can be spared for wildlife habitats and for natural climate solutions – as well as how farms themselves can become more nature-rich.

From the analysis we’ve done, we’d suggest that there’s plenty of suitable land available for doubling tree cover, providing we continue to shift our diets to eating less but better meat and dairy – thereby freeing up more marginal land for scrub and woodland. Yet we also see a big role for growing more trees on farms too: through increasing the number and width of hedgerows, encouraging more wood pasture, planting shelter belts (a row of tree or shrubs planted to protect an area), and the widescale adoption of agroforestry (which can boost productivity and enable farmers to diversify into fruit and nut cultivation).

Farming should be driving this agenda, taking advantage of the opportunities and being rewarded for incorporating more trees on farms – through a system of reformed farm subsidies, for instance. It’s vital that small tenant farmers, rather than just large landowners, are incentivised to grow more trees on their farms.

As newspapers, NGOs and politicians have announced ever-bigger tree planting drives, some environmentalists have suggested  that in fact we shouldn’t be planting trees at all – but rather letting woodlands grow back through a process of natural regeneration. Friends of the Earth is hugely supportive of rewilding; it’s absolutely true that in some areas, if we stop over-grazing the land, saplings will take root and woods re-emerge.

But there are also places where rewilding simply isn’t likely to occur, such as in urban parks, or on land remote from natural seed sources. As Professor Alastair Driver, director at Rewilding Britain says : “there are huge tracts of our uplands where natural regeneration won’t happen for many many decades due to paucity [lack] of seed sources nearby”. Time is of the essence, he states: “tackling the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis means we need to crack on”.

Rewilding and tree planting are both required to protect the climate and help wildlife thrive. Choosing between them is a bit like choosing between breakfast or dinner – we need both. That’s why the Government should fund natural regeneration as well as tree planting.

The truth is that the scale of the climate and ecological emergency is so great, and requires such a transformation in how we do things, that there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions. We need to work on many fronts and pull out all the stops – so that means needing agroforestry on farms and converting some marginal farmland into woodland. We need rewilding and planting trees. We need practical projects and concerted political action. And we need everyone to get involved, now.

Councils often own large expanses of land with plenty of space for more trees. Ask your Council to double tree cover

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