We all want more trees, that’s agreed; however, we must balance the competing interests of rewilding schemes and commercial forestry, says Rupert Bates
Just 13% of UK land is woodland cover. But through to 2050, the Government wants 75,000 acres of woodland planted annually. Tree planting can be done by anyone, says Rupert Bates, but the competing interests of rewilding schemes and commercial forestry must be balanced.
For more on woodlands, learn about the relentless pathogen wrecking our woodlands, read ashes to ashes: the devastation of ash dieback.
William Hague, during his time as leader of the Conservative Party and foreign secretary loved a battle of oratory at the dispatch box in Westminster, or jousts with dignitaries around the world – the sound and fury of politics and diplomacy. Now The Rt Hon the Lord Hague of Richmond and a life peer sitting in the House of Lords prefers, when not involved in his business interests, book writing and speaking engagements, to tend his Welsh garden. Specifically tree planting, having planted more than 6,000 trees in the past four years amid the 39 acres of his home in Montgomeryshire.
Woodland creation may be a recent project but the buds of Hague’s passion bloomed as a child growing up in South Yorkshire. “We actually lived in a village on the edge of an industrial area. I used to walk the fields with my dog and felt an instinctive sense of belonging in a wooded landscape,” said Hague.
As an MBA student in France, he ambled through the Forest of Fontainebleau, the gateway to Paris with deciduous and softwood trees standing sentinel. “It is thinking time, providing that balance between nature and man. Even as a child I dreamt of planting trees.”
The bulk of the tree planting is to create a new wood on a virgin field of grass – largely young whips, mixed in with bigger trees. “The growing of trees and woodland is always assumed to be a slow process but they grow quicker than you think. Yes, I do watch them grow.”
Oak, rowan, cherry, lilac, yew, hazel – he rattles off his garden trees like class names in a village primary school.
Hague’s wife, Ffion, suggested they planted trees that would chime and blossom with the seasons, creating glades for spring, summer, autumn and winter.
The Hagues are also planting a conifer forest for legacy growth and posterity, adding to the giant redwoods, Douglas firs and cedars of Lebanon already standing tall, ancient and proud. “People love to gaze up at the giants. But what about planting the next generation of them?”
Another area of plantation will remain relatively wild, encouraging wildlife and biodiversity. “Already in a few years the woods chatter to the sound of goldcrests and chiffchaffs, and there is so much insect life,” he explains. An orchard of apple and pear trees means the Hagues are self-sufficient when it comes to fruit juices and cider might follow.
Throughout the acres is a commitment to planting natural species, homegrown from local nurseries, trees less travelled, with Hague acutely aware of the need for biosecurity and to combat diseases brought in from abroad, such as the devastating ash dieback.
The UK imports more than 80% of the wood it consumes and is the second biggest net importer of timber after China.
Hague doesn’t believe in creating ‘forbidding forests’ but plantations that add to the natural landscape while creating wildlife habitats, as well as produce and sustenance – be it, on larger commercial scales, timber for construction and fuel or simply wood for the fire and fruit for the kitchen table. “I can already lie in the shade of trees we have planted – a wonderful sense of calm and satisfaction.”
I don’t know if Hague has been whispering in influential ears but the Government wants to see 75,000 acres of woodland planted annually through to 2050. That’s many millions of trees – broadleaves and conifers. Just 13% of UK land is currently woodland cover – one of the smallest percentages in Europe – and Scotland accounts for nearly half of that.
Speaking at the Accelerating Woodland Creation conference in March, an online forum organised by Ecosystems Knowledge Network and sponsored by Strutt & Parker and Grown in Britain, the environment minister Zac Goldsmith said: “The government has hugely ambitious plans for tree planting and woodland creation across the country. Trees are important for the economy, biodiversity and flood resistance… We know planting on hillsides helps to absorb water, trees can protect and enhance biodiversity and they are ritually important for nature recovery networks. None of this comes cheaply. We have a huge challenge to achieve a scale of tree planting and woodland management we haven’t seen before.”
Lord Goldsmith referred to the Government’s £640 million Nature for Climate Fund; hailed Scotland’s success in planting more than 27,000 acres of woodland from 2018 to 2019 and stressed that any path to net zero emissions needed the restoration and protection of forests.
PRICES OF WOODLAND
Anyone can plant a tree. You don’t have to be a vast landowner or, like Lord Hague, a former holder of one of the four great offices of state. Urban or community planting can also create civic woodlands within or on the fringes of towns and cities.
Prices of woodland range hugely, spreading from £700 for a broadleaved acre in a remote location, up to £10,000 an acre for top commercial forestry.
Agents Knight Frank say there is a big demand from investors large and small for woodland, be it for amenity value, to shoot in, to walk and not talk in, or as part of a rewilding project on larger estates. “Conservation, forestry, biodiversity, biomass, hydro, amenity, sport. Different buyers are looking for different things,” says Clive Hopkins, head of farms and estates at Knight Frank.
Wealthy individuals are chasing the ‘feel good factor’ of putting something back into the land, salving eco and carbon consciences, not sweating the asset to maximise short-term returns as they might other investments. However, trees are your fiscal friends, with all sorts of tax reliefs available, not to mention grants, on woodland and timber. “The pressure in this country has always been on land to grow food, rather than plant trees. It is about balance and finding the right agricultural land. There is a big political will in favour of forestry and the concept of public money for public good,” says Hopkins.
As well as incentives and education for farmers whose accountants tell them that agriculture invariably trumps arboriculture on the balance sheet, the forestry world also has to convince the big players; pension funds and institutional investors sniffing around the sector and keen to polish, or to find, climate change halos.
The trouble is such investors don’t have the patience to watch trees grow and cannot comprehend the timescales, meaning the industry needs to find fund structures, not to mention the land, that suits such big pots of capital, blending private and public finance and cutting through bureaucratic red tape. Also, any change of land use to woodland is effectively irreversible.
Tom Barnes is managing director of Vastern Timber, a fourth-generation family saw-milling business based in Wiltshire, manufacturing oak beams, timber cladding and hardwood flooring using British-grown timbers, such as English oak, sweet chestnut, ash, sycamore and larch. While Barnes sees today as “the greatest opportunity for afforestation and woodland regeneration”, he says the price of getting it wrong is equally huge, with the need to bring together the competing claims of commercial forestry and rewilding; plantations and natural woodlands. “But we all want more trees,” says Barnes, putting together a series of videos under the banner Wood For The Trees, ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (now postponed until November 2021).
Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere and the wood from the trees as a sustainable building product not only locks up that carbon but offsets the need for more carbon-intensive construction materials, such as concrete and steel. “Wood looks good and makes us feel good,” says Barnes.
Poor woodland management and a lack of forestry skills and silviculture expertise is another issue, exacerbated by the threats of pests and pathogens, with grey squirrels, rabbits and deer licking their lips at the prospect of millions of young trees being planted across the country, while ownership varies from the huge holdings of the Forestry Commission down to the smallest coppice.
Zac Goldsmith adds: “We need firms to change the way they do business, and for foresters, local communities, landowners and farmers to plant trees on their land and see woodland creation as a financially viable option. We need more private investment in tree-planting schemes, and we need the public sector to make land available that is not needed or suitable for housebuilding or development. My job is to ensure we get access to that land.”
Ross Murray practises what he preaches. The day job as chairman of rural asset management at Knight Frank takes in plenty of tree chat and Murray loves to talk trees. He is a trustee of Llanover in Monmouthshire, an estate planting and managing trees for commercial and amenity purposes, softwoods and hardwoods, as well as more exotic species such as coastal redwoods and southern beech.
Two years ago the estate, in the same family ownership since the late 18th century, planted up a sheep farm high in the Brecon Beacons National Park, just part of an ongoing commitment to woodland creation and management on the estate. “Anyone and everyone should be planting trees. The environmental benefits around climate change and conservation, as well as social benefits, are huge,” says Murray.
CIRCLE OF LIFE
It is important to consider ‘the right tree in the right place’ but there is a wonderful circle of life to forest and timber rotations – charcoal and firewood, woodchip and biomass, Christmas trees and willow for cricket bats and the longer rotations for larger commercial forests over many years.
“Investors are really frightened by market volatility. Trees sit in an aesthetic investment class. Woodland is tangible and not locked in a bank; you can visit it, look at it, touch it and it comes with tax and carbon credits. Access it and treasure it,” enthuses Murray.
We are now reminded sharply of the importance of surety of supply of our most basic and vital commodities in a global economy and wood can contribute to plenty of homegrown food, manufacturing and energy security.
It is the understanding of forestry as both factory and amenity, overlaid with myriad environmental benefits.
“Scotland has risen to the planting challenge with further capacity to help Britain as a whole, with sensible infrastructure and mills close to forests,” says Murray.
There is an assumption that planting trees is purely for the next generation – trees you will never see. Nothing wrong with that as a family legacy, but Murray says: “You can do it in your own lifetime if you get on with it.” Let’s get on with it.