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More trees please

With a General Election on the horizon, Paul de Zylva, Senior Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, explores what party pledges of ambitious tree planting targets could mean for nature and how these promises must be delivered to break the cycle of failure. 

March 2024

General Elections and trees don’t often appear in the same sentence, but when political parties devise policies, pledges and manifestoes a question that often comes up is: how many trees will they plant if they enter office?

Politicians and manifesto writers like nice round numbers, and the last General Election in 2019 saw parties pledge tantalising tree planting targets:.

  • The Conservative Party manifesto pledged 30 million new trees planted at 30,000 hectares a year
  • The Liberal Democrats went for 60 million to boost tree cover by 1million ha by 2045.
  • The Green Party upped that to 700m trees and half of farms adopting agroforestry (trees as part of farming) by 2030.
  • The Labour Party 2 billion trees by 2040 and 20,000 green jobs in tree care, woodland management, and forestry and related skills.

Such ambition is fine because the UK’s eroded environment makes it one of the least wooded nations in Europe in keeping with also being one of the world’s most nature-depleted nations. The lack of tree cover in the UK (and England in particular) means far too many areas and communities - rural and urban alike - are missing out on the well-known and largely free benefits of having proper tree cover nearby including:

  • natural cooling not least in overheated urban areas
  • shade for farm livestock and windbreaks for both crops and livestock
  • intercepting rainfall to help hold back potential flood waters
  • supporting other wild species from lichens to insects, birds to mammals
  • binding soils to reduce soil erosion from wind and rain
  • boosting soil quality and nutrients and the ability of soils to store carbon
  • storing carbon themselves.

The main trouble with tree planting in the UK (and England in particular) is the failure to match ambition with delivery on the ground.

Yes, there are plenty of tree planting projects but too many result in dead trees for lack of proper planning, including the location, and aftercare not least watering. What a waste of time, effort, money, trees, land and more.

There are some other basic reasons for a lack of delivery. Manifesto writers’ eyes may start to glaze when talk turns to detail, but the repeated failure of grand pledges - whether for millions or for billions of trees pledged by parties - comes down to letting the nuts and bolts of delivery go rusty.

That is why in England it has been refreshing to see politicians and civil servants at last grasp the need to get those nuts and bolts greased and working. That means things like dealing with seemingly mundane matters such as putting in proper financial support to plant and maintain new trees, and investing in the skills needed to grow and keep trees alive, whether in mixed broadleaf woodlands for nature or in plantation forests for timber.

It also means working well with others consistently and over time. Governments always like to claim they are working on an issue with lots of different interests, but that can often be superficial window dressing.

Delivering on the 2021-24 England Tree Action Plan and the related £757 million Nature for Climate Fund has been a breath of fresh air for how the government has worked with a breadth of interests – foresters, farmers, conservation groups, and others who have all got behind a sustained plan to reforest England and the UK.

Yes, these groups may differ on some detail, but the kind of unity on what is needed to get going on tree planting, woodland cover and boosting forestry should be gold dust for any government wanting to know how turn constant failure into ‘get things done’ mode.

Thanks to this progress towards a proper plan over time, not just the short-term election cycle, England is probably better placed than it has been for decades to break out of what had become an almost predictable cycle of failure.

Also part of the shift in mood has been that it has never been easier to identify where it’s right to put in new trees to gain the benefits (see above).

For example, Friends of the Earth and the Woodland Trust have helpful mapping tools to pin-point where land is right and ripe for planting, including to address where communities and areas are missing out. The Forestry Commission has also worked on areas of suitability and least risk.

And the money situation looks better. In England, the government has recently upped the financial support or new trees on farmland. And recognition of the role of agroforestry seems to have improved.

That is a helpful fillip. Whether it will be enough to help farmers and landowners go into agroforestry more - which is a big long-term commitment to make - and not be tempted by offers to buy up land will have to be seen. For example, many farmers and land owners are being tempted to sell up or enter carbon offset schemes of variable quality. Entering such schemes result in loss of control and monocrop forestry propping up the bottom lines of investors circling the carbon credits markets, without doing much for nature, food growing or other aims.

Farmers and land managers should receive proper financial support and targeted advice to support their transition to agroforestry without compromising on food security. There’s also scope for allowing more natural establishment, especially in buffer zones around Ancient Woodlands to contribute to tree targets, and reduce pressure on nursery stock supply.

These and other positive actions should be part of a post-election refresh of the Tree Action Plan and a renewed Climate for Nature Fund.

Politicians like to be seen planting trees and cutting ribbons on new woodland and forests. Their parties like to set eye-catching tree planting pledges but tend not to pay attention to the all-important reality which is that their pledges will wilt like un-watered saplings unless buttressed with the all-important nuts and bolts that helps ensure that healthy saplings grow into mighty oaks (other species are available).

Paul de Zylva is Senior Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Follow @friends_earth

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.