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Plant a tree in ’73

Matthew Chatfield
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I can just about remember “Plant a tree in ’73“.

Rushden Housemartins Over-60s club
Planting a tree in 1973

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.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

6 thoughts on “Plant a tree in ’73

  • steven stark

    I planted a tree in castle donington.10 years ago it was pulled up and houses put on the sight. Thanks a lot

  • Bridget Parsons

    I worked in Staffordshire county council forestry department at this time. We then did plant some more in ‘74!
    Massive amount of interest. Times have changed but I do think there is a great possibility of renewing interest now with all the issues being faced for the next generations.

    • John willett

      Me and my twin sister were chosen to plant trees at heathcote county primary school in Asagers bank the trees are still there I am now 56 so plant a tree in 23 would be an anniversary

  • George Skuse

    Why not start a new appeal – plant a tree in 23, after all it will be 50 years since “plant a Tree in 73” was promoted. After all Ash dieback must have a similar effect to the effects of the Elm Bark Beetle which stimulated the previous campaign

  • sarah marshall

    Yes finding a suitable place to plant trees is tricky. However, engaging people in planting trees can be a great way to get them interested in wider issues and to draw attention to our existing woodlands etc Getting information like this out into the public realm is important and drawing upon the knowledge of others before planting goes ahead is key too.

  • maggie izzard

    Perhaps Countryfile on BBC needs to know more about this. They were busy planting trees all over the country last week but there was not any mention of the aftercare of young trees.


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