I can just about remember “Plant a tree in ’73“.
It was a government-sponsored programme to give schoolchildren and local councils an opportunity to plant trees in response to the disastrous Dutch elm disease epidemic; a scourge that radically changed the landscape of much of England, including the Isle of Wight. I well remember the sad demise of the big elm tree at the back of our garden in Sandown – no more climbing up into its prickly embrace for little Matthew. So in 1973, proudly I brought a little birch home from school and thrust it into the front garden. Perhaps that influenced my eventual choice of career as a countryside worker.
Now there is another official programme to plant a whole load more trees, a Northern Forest. The Prime Minister said this month that the government will help create a “vast ribbon of woodland” between Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. More woodland is going to be better for everyone – and it’s not quite the same thing as more trees. You see, people love planting trees, but they really don’t like looking after woodland. A great many of the trees planted back in 1973 did not survive to maturity – including mine, I am sorry to say. The reasons were varied, but come down to either a lack of planning, or a lack of proper aftercare.
Just planting trees isn’t enough – they need to be in the right place, or sooner or later they will be in somebody’s way, and get cut down. Or worse still, planting the wrong tree in the wrong place can harm existing wildlife, making things worse. Yes, there are some habitats even more rare and valuable than woodland: chalk downland, one of our Island specialities, is one of them.
“Tree planting is not synonymous with conservation, it is an admission that conservation has failed.” Oliver Rackham
Aftercare is even trickier. In the attractive Johnny-Appleseed mythology, all you need to do is scatter acorns from your pocket and trees will magically spring up in due course. Well, sorry chum, they usually won’t. If you plant a tree, be prepared to look after it, on and off, for quite a while. If you don’t, you’re not going to get much of a woodland any time soon. That’s where we really haven’t got the right idea. Looking after woods does not mean ‘leaving things to mother nature’. Forest management in England involves cutting trees down, sometimes, and people don’t like that. If we lived in the virgin rainforest, maybe they’d have a point. But we don’t. On the Isle of Wight, every woodland you see is created directly or indirectly by human activity and to keep these well-loved habitats sustainable some intervention is still required.
So when you hear about tree-planting programmes – or new National Forests – remember Plant a Tree in ’73 and ask yourself these questions. Is there any plan to look after these new trees once they are in the ground? And would this money be better spent on managing the forests and woodlands that we already struggle to care for?
This is a revised version of the article first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.