Experts are urging a shift from tree planting to tree establishment in government targets, emphasising that billions of pounds in taxpayer money may be squandered on trees that perish due to inadequate attention.
The current emphasis on planting over survival raises concerns as neglected saplings contribute to targets even if they die before reaching maturity. This approach jeopardises the UK’s net-zero strategy and biodiversity goals, both reliant on significant woodland expansion for carbon sequestration.
Speaking at the Royal Horticultural Society autumn conference, Tony Kirkham, former head of arboretum at Kew Gardens, said: “The target is for tree planting, I believe it should be for tree establishment. It shouldn’t be about targets for planting a number of trees it should be establishing trees. We can all plant a million trees, but will they be alive five years down the line and that’s what the problem is.”
The government’s environmental improvement plan, released this year, commits to increasing tree cover in England by 34,000 hectares by January 31, 2028, and raising tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 16.5% of total land area by 2050. Experts warn that achieving these targets becomes unlikely if a substantial number of saplings perish.
The 2019 manifesto also pledged to plant 30,000 hectares of trees annually across the UK by 2025. However, concerns persist among experts that trees planted for government targets may never mature, lacking the attention of trained professionals to provide essential care such as watering.
Sara Loom, the CEO of the Tree Council, said: “We don’t currently know enough about tree survival, the data is really patchy. There’s some really hard economic reasons as well for tree establishment. The government target is 30,000 hectares of trees planted a year over the next 30 years. That’s 900,000 hectares at 1,000 trees per hectare. That’s a billion trees. Say it costs £11 to plant and care for each tree. That’s a budget of £11bn. So increasing survival by just 5, 10, 15% – just do the maths.”
The call for a focus on tree establishment aims to ensure the long-term viability and success of tree initiatives, preventing the waste of resources and safeguarding against the failure of ambitious environmental goals.
Kirkham explained: “I do think that the chance is that many of the trees we plant will never reach that maturity but so what we need to do before we start tree planting is work out tree-planting budget for aftercare. And I think lots of trees are planted and then the next contractor comes along, doesn’t look after them and they die. It’s not rocket science – most of the time a tree dies because it needed a drink.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “Tree-planting rates are at their highest for a decade, but we know there is more to do and will continue to work with partners to increase the nation’s tree cover. We have invested significantly in woodland management with multiple grants in place to assist landowners and managers in establishing newly planted trees and many of these are dependent on recipients providing evidence of tree survival.”
At Natural World Fund, we are passionate about stopping the decline in our wildlife.
The decline in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their decline towards extinction.
When you help to restore a patch of degraded land through rewilding to forests, meadows, or wetlands, you have a massive impact on the biodiversity at a local level. You give animals a home and food that they otherwise would not have had, and it has a positive snowball effect on the food chain.
We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.
This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!
Donate today at https://naturalworldfund.com/ and join in the solution!