It looks at first glance like another environmental good story that follows in the wake of a number of other positive announcements in recent times – the government is to support the planting of 50 million trees in order to make a new northern forest that will spread across an entire swathe of the north, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. There’s a more detailed look at the project here, on the Woodland Trust website. I previously wrote on this blog about how we need more trees in this under-wooded country and so in this respect it seems like a great thing. But as Patrick Barkham points out in the Guardian, there is more than a suggestion of greenwash on the part of the government about the announcement of the new northern forest – at the same time, HS2 and fracking in northern England are destroying valuable existing habitats and trees that have stood for hundreds of years.
He makes the point that tree planting diverts funds and attention away from other conservation efforts and makes it seem more acceptable to destroy existing woodland habitats because of the argument that new habitat is being created in order to replace it. This is clearly a dangerous view: woodland that has existed for centuries is infinitely more valuable than a field filled with newly-planted saplings. It reminds me of the poem by W. H. Auden:
A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
W. H. Auden, from ‘Woods’ (1953)
But I feel that there is something to celebrate in this announcement and Barkham agrees. He adds:
‘The government is beginning to recognise the value of green infrastructure. The Woodland Trust and new community forests will involve children in the joyful pleasure of planting a tree. Woodlands close to urban areas will help us all enjoy high-quality green space, essential for our mental and physical wellbeing.
‘So we should embrace the Northern Forest, without letting 50m saplings obscure a more urgent task: halting the loss of our last ancient woodlands.’
I recently watched George Monbiot’s brilliantly lucid explanation about why the British countryside is so denuded of trees.
To me it demonstrates that conservation efforts need to do much more than plant trees – they also need to address the root causes of why our countryside is in such a terrible state – and that has to do with a whole system of subsidies and taxation that encourages poor stewardship and resists the very idea of ‘the wild’. Michael Gove recently stated that the subsidy regime will change to encourage wildlife but is it realistic to expect that the Conservative party will willingly make some of its greatest supporters actually have to do something for a good chunk of their income that they do not have to do at the moment? The encouraging thing is that there does seem to be a political and cultural awakening to the fact that land given over to wildlife, land which has a positive rather than a negative impact on biodiversity, is not a middle-class luxury but an essential for all of us – it is not just good for wildlife but good for humans too. This should simultaneously be celebrated and fought for: at the moment there is plenty of talk and little action – and this government needs to be held to account to see whether it will really deliver on its stated aspirations.