TREES FOR OUR FUTURE

There was certainly a buzz surrounding vast tree-planting efforts throughout the UK at the end of 2019, but how realistic is it to think we can just ‘re-wild’ to former glory?

The catastrophic effects of climate change, and the simplified understanding that in order to improve it, we must reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, is now widely acknowledged. Creating woodland is an effective way of doing this, but what should we plant in the current climate that will perform in our uncertain future environment?

By the end of last year, significant planting efforts were documented across the nation, with 24.7 million trees planted across the UK. Labour promised to plant 2 billion trees by 2040 in their election campaign, the Woodland Trust asked for 1 million people to plant a tree in November, and any business worth its salt invested in carting employees out to the countryside with spades and wellies, with schools, institutions and councils also recording huge efforts.

It should make sense to replant species native to the UK, or ones that have thrived here for hundreds of years.  The Big Climate Fightback page certainly suggests as such. However, three of the six trees they sell; Fagus sylvatica (common beech), Quercus robur (English oak), and Betula pendula (silver birch) already have significant limitations.

Common beech:

Beech trees are sometimes susceptible to root rot from a variety of fungal pathogens, whilst others can suffer from beech bark disease, with severe infestations completely destroying affected trees. 

The common beech is also vulnerable to bark-stripping by grey squirrels.

English oak:

The oak processionary moth is a non-native pest found in London, Surrey and Berkshire. It damage the foliage and significantly increases the oak’s susceptibility to other diseases.

Acute oak decline is a combination of factors that cause oak trees to become stressed. Environmental stresses like soil conditions, drought, waterlogging and pollution can all impact the tree. Insects, fungi and bacteria then move in on the exposed tree and push it into decline.

Silver birch:

They are not heat or drought-tolerant, which given the change in climate, makes them increasingly vulnerable. 

So are these really the right species to be choosing, and if not what are the alternatives? Well, you don’t have to go far in London to find an Olea europaea (olive tree) thriving outdoors. There is an enormous Persea americana(avocado tree) near Victoria station, and an increasing number of residential gardens in the capital are showcasing flourishing Eucalyptus. Although they are not 100% hardy, they are now the UK’s fastest growing tree.

Whilst this means it is now easy to grow trees native to warmer climes, and is an ominous sign of the times, it is perhaps also a helpful indicator as to what is likely to succeed in future years. 

I understand the imperativeness of planting more trees, and whilst I wholeheartedly back any attempt to improve the current state of climate and environment, I do wonder whether informed choices are being made across the board. We simply cannot ‘rewild’ hurriedly with former species; it is critical that we choose appropriately and a with a view to the longer term. 

Rewilding has become a fashionable and highly praised term, with the welcome promise of returning nature to its former state. Melanie Sisson, of Defra, spoke recently on the UK’s reforesting effort: “we need to go further and faster than we are now”. But with this accelerated approach, are the right trees being planted in the right places? 

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