The new northern forest

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.



A new charter – and a new chance – for trees in the UK



I wanted to write something about the launch of the tree charter on 6 November, which hasn’t been widely covered in the media, but I did find this great piece by Boudicca Fox-Leonard (what a name!) in the Telegraph that seems to cover most of what I wanted to say, which either means I’m not nearly as original as I thought I was, or I’m in exalted company in thinking along the same lines as Ms Fox-Leonard!

Her piece begins with a wonderful sentence: ‘In slides the shovel, out comes a clod of earth; a delicate sapling is dropped into the neat hole and soil repacked around it.’ She mentions the fact that our percentage of tree cover in the UK is far below the European average. Across the UK it stands at around 13 per cent and in England it is just 10 per cent. Compare this to France (36.76%), Spain (36.7%), Italy (35%) and Germany (32%). Even allowing for the fact that Britain is an island with a high population density, the comparison is enormously unfavourable, yet 2016 was the worst year for planting on record. She also points out that the government pledged to plant 11 million trees by 2020 and that this pledge is unlikely to be kept. In other words, not enough is being done to improve the situation.

Why do I think it is important that more trees are planted? I have two main answers to that question – the first is personal; and the second is more about the benefits that I believe trees provide to our society as a whole.

I love spending time amongst trees and I am lucky enough to live on the edge of the New Forest, which has some beautiful woodland (though less than you might think). In the Telegraph article I cited above, Boudicca Fox-Leonard mentions the Japanese word ‘shinrin-yoku’, which literally means forest-bathing, and I find there is something immeasurably restorative about being immersed in the dappled light and many-hued greens and browns of forests.

A number of studies have been done which show that trees do exert a positive psychological impact not just on me, but on people in general. A study published in the journal Nature combined satellite imagery, individual tree data, and health surveys from 31,109 residents of the greater Toronto, Canada area. It found that people who live in areas with higher street tree density report better health perception compared with their peers living in areas with lower street tree density.

Trees also provide more tangible benefits:

  • They capture carbon and store it, which means that mass tree-planting can be an effective part of helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
  • Tree-planting can help to reduce flooding by increasing water penetration and retention.
  • They offer habitats for many different types of wildlife.
  • Urban trees can play a key role in reducing urban heat island effect and regulating temperature in cities.

It is nothing less than a national tragedy that we do not have more trees, more protection for woodland and a culture that more meaningfully celebrates trees and the amazing benefits that they can give us. Many of the reasons for this are given in this superbly argued piece by George Monbiot, which specifically looks at what might happen after Brexit and the death of the current EU subsidies regime.

It is clear to me that something needed to be done and the launch of the tree charter seems like a positive first step.

The Woodland Trust first started the call for a tree charter 2015 by in response to the crisis facing trees and woods in the UK. Up until this point there has been no clear, unifying statement about the rights of people in the UK to the benefits of trees, woods and forests. The UK’s trees and woods face:

  • low planting rates;
  • lack of legal protection;
  • inconsistent management;
  • declining interest in forestry and arboriculture careers;
  • threats from housing and infrastructure development, pests, diseases and climate change.

Each one of these issues was being addressed in isolation by a small number of concerned organisations and tree lovers.

The Woodland Trust reached out to all sections of UK society to define the new charter, and to build a people-powered movement for trees. More than 70 organisations and 300 local community groups answered the call and helped to collect over 60,000 tree stories from people, demonstrating the important role that trees play in their lives. These stories were read and shared, and helped to define the 10 Principles of the Tree Charter, ensuring that it stands for every tree and every person in the UK.

On 6 November 2017, on the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest, the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People was launched at Lincoln Castle – home to one of the two remaining copies of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. It now rests in the Lincolnshire Archives.

I think that the launch of the new charter is an important step in not only achieving the much-needed increase in planting rates, but also in terms of making trees a more crucial, better-understood and better-appreciated part of our wider culture. As Boudicca Fox-Leaonard wrote, ‘It only takes a minute to plant a tree, but the effects last more than our lifetime.’

Sign up to the tree charter and a tree will be planted for you.


My strange role in the death of neonicotinoids in the UK

My very first blog on my new website was an open letter to Michael Gove about neonicotinoids – the controversial family of pesticides that many scientists believe has been one of the primary causes of major reductions in insect and bird populations over the past fifteen years. I suggested that Mr Gove make a move to ban the use of neoniciotinoids.

I first published my blog on 6 November but didn’t get around to actually sending the letter to Michael Gove until 8 November. On 9 November there was a surprise announcement: Michael Gove backed a total ban on neonicotinoids.

I cannot take all the credit for this decision – after all many groups have been lobbying for the ban for some time and Greenpeace has collected more than 130,000 signature in the UK calling for it. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that the timing very neatly coincided with my intervention.

The reaction from the environmental lobby has been almost universally positive. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wrote:

Greenpeace UK tweeted:

But at the school gates that same afternoon I was talking to a friend of mine who suggested to me that the news might not be quite as positive as it at first seemed. If farmers are not using neonicotinoids, she said, then they would have to use something else and many of the alternatives are pretty horrendous as well. She also said that because the alternatives have lower efficacy then they will be used in greater quantities.

There was a similar theme in Hannah Lownsbrough’s piece in the Guardian, in which she called for Michael Gove to adopt ‘a bold stance when confronted with similar evidence about other dangerous pesticides.’

And this brilliantly demystifying document on the subject of pesticide use from the Soil Association makes the much more general point that ‘Regulation on pesticides is slowly improving but is still inadequate to fully protect the environment and human health.’

Nonetheless, I was encouraged not just by Michael Gove’s decision but for his justification in making it. He wrote that:

Environmental change on such a scale is profoundly worrying. Not least because of the critical role played by bees and other pollinators. These particular flying insects are absolutely critical to the health of the natural world. Without a healthy pollinator population we put the whole ecological balance of our world in danger.

It strikes me that someone who accepts this premiss is  not only going to make a good decision on neonicotinoids but should also support more adequate legislative regulation on pesticides in general. I hope I’m right.


An open letter to Michael Gove MP

Dear Mr Gove,

Two worrying reports about insects have come to my attention in the past couple of weeks – the first a widely reported study from Germany that has seen a 75 per cent drop in insect numbers over the past 25 years; the second a report about the steady decline in honey crop from the British Beekeepers Association.

In a survey of members of the British Beekeepers Association, 62 per cent said that they believed neonicotinoids are to blame, a belief which seems to be supported by the fact that suburban beekeepers (away from agricultural land) are returning better yields that rural beekeepers.

The first of these reports is frankly terrifying to me – a 40 year-old with two young children. I had hoped that my children might get to see as much of the beauty of the natural world as I have managed to do in my life. Now I spend more time worrying about whether they will live for as long as me, as mass extinctions of wild animals gain in speed. I think that it is our generation’s responsibility to reverse this trend. I know that you have expressed the commitment to try and leave the environment in a better state at the end of your term than at the beginning. I am dubious of your ability to do this, not least because the juggernaut of environmental destruction seems to have a scary amount of momentum that is going to be difficult to stop.

But, hey, one thing at a time – and this letter is all about insects.

It has been said many times, but it seems to need saying again: bees and other pollinating insects are vital for agriculture and a healthy ecosystem. I believe that the government has a responsibility to do their best to protect bees and it seems that a ban on neonicotinoids seems like a sensible starting point.

Do you support this move and, if you do not, how can you defend keeping neonicotinoids?

Let’s not wait until it’s too late to take decisive action – I think you can do something to make the world a slightly better place right now. Please use that power well.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin Telfer