In the foreword to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote: “This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time… Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place.

Certainly, a world without trees would be an unhappier place. Our community is a better place for the trees in our gardens and public places. These fascinating plants are central to global ecology and, despite our species’ technological prowess, are crucial to our survival: regulating the climate, storing carbon, preventing soil erosion, providing a habitat to most animals on our planet and giving millions of people materials for shelter and food to eat.

Uttlesford: A Treeless Agrarian Desert

Uttlesford has only six per cent tree cover, which is well below the national level of 13 per cent – which is, itself, abysmal compared to mainland Europe. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that 17% of the UK’s land area should be forest if the UK is to reach its 2050 net-zero target. To meet these targets, we need to plant at least 30,000 hectares of new trees every year across the country.

Just to get to the current national average, Uttlesford would have to see 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) converted to woodland, equating to more than 10 million trees based on the Forestry Commission’s standard grant-aided woodland which has 2,250 trees per hectare. This is an area more than 10 times the size of the district’s largest woodland area, Hatfield Forest (403 hectares), and nearly twice the size of Epping Forest (2,400 hectares). We have a lot to do to restore our woodland cover.

Tree planting at this rate happened during the 1970s – the government of Ted Heath oversaw the planting of more than 40,000 hectares of trees per annum. In the late 1980s, the UK was planting at a rate of 30,000 hectares per annum, equating to approximately 67.5 million trees per annum. The rate of planting has diminished considerably. In 2018, just 1,400 hectares of trees were planted in England, against a government target of 5,000 hectares

Planting schemes would not only help absorb carbon, they could help restore aquifers as trees help prevent run-off and instead ensure that water slowly percolates through the soil. This also helps boost soil fertility by preventing fertile soil from being washed away.

However, the district is slowly going backwards not forwards with regards tree cover. We are set to lose many local trees to pathogens and pests that are rampaging through the countryside, often facilitated by the effects of climate change. Mild winters and early springs are causing a boom in caterpillars that feast on tree canopies, as seen in Birchanger Wood last year.

Stress from summer drought is making it harder for trees to cope with fungal and bacterial infestation. The effects of drought are exacerbated by unsustainable groundwater extraction for sewage treatment, golf courses and intensive agriculture.

Ash dieback – a fungal disease – is set to eradicate 90 per cent of ash trees, one of the dominant trees species in our area. Oak processionary moth is knocking on the district’s door, having been identified in East Herts last summer, indicating that they had expanded their range outside Greater London; as well as stripping oaks, they pose a public health problem due to their toxic hairs. Even previously innocuous moths, such as the November moth whose caterpillars are predated by blue and great tits, are surging in number as a result of climate change.

Planting in Parks: A Placebo, not a Panacea

Yet, the declaration of a climate emergency by Uttlesford District Council has prompted a panic-driven obsession with planting trees. At a rate of 80,000 trees planted per annum, as proposed (but not adopted) in December’s full council meeting, it would take 126 years to reach the national average rate of tree cover.

Local councils have open spaces where trees can be planted relatively cheaply and quickly, enabling them to meet public demands for more trees in a desperate effort to achieve net zero carbon emissions. This has driven an initial tree planting programme in Saffron Walden. However, there is not enough public parkland to come near to the levels needed.

Paradoxically, rapid planting of trees on amenity land risks shortsightedness with the danger that many trees will be unloved, uncared for and endure short lives. It is estimated that one in four newly planted trees in public areas will die due to lack of care. Sometimes this is due to inappropriate planting, such as planting goat willow on hillsides when the species is adapted for wet soil. In contrast, trees that have established themselves naturally will usually grow faster and stronger – a situation that does not occur in a park setting but in woodlands.

The problems are rooted in the perception of trees as carbon-eating units, instead of integral parts of woodland ecology. A tree’s purpose is severely hampered by being placed in an unnatural environment such as a park. While trees like planes and limes can grow and often thrive in a manicured lawn where few insects can live, others can struggle. Trees also need to die gracefully to realise their full benefits to the environment. Decline and death of trees is as important to natural ecology as living healthy trees.

Trees in decline are fascinating from an ecological perspective. Just 10 per cent of a healthy tree is living tissue: three per cent of its mass is leaves, five per cent is inner bark and two per cent is the ray cells in sapwood. But a tree in advanced decay is more living than it has ever been. Rotting wood is a megacity of fungus and insects with more living tissue than it ever was as a “living” tree, gently transforming a tree’s dying body into fertile matter and contributing to nature’s rich cycle of rebirth.

Yet, evidence of disease is a reason to remove a tree on amenity land and in streets – as happened a few years ago when Saffron Walden town council removed four dead trees from the High Street. A dead amenity tree is unsightly and a dangerous liability. The death of three people after a diseased ash fell on cars in Kings Heath in 1999 is used as an example to all tree surveyors of the importance of their job; Birmingham City Council was fined £150,000 for breach of health and safety. Local authorities are obliged to put our safety before the life of a tree.

We also need to learn from the experience of the 1970s. We cannot just have a monoculture planting programme, which back then focused on a few coniferous species – mostly Norway spruce, ie Christmas trees, that were never properly cultivated.

A local example is the 60-acre West Wood, situated between Thaxted and Great Sampford. In the 1970s, native deciduous trees were decimated by the landowner, replaced by spruce in return for government grants. The spruce was never thinned or managed and this ancient woodland – a site of special scientific interest – was left in a poor state. Following its acquisition by Essex Wildlife Trust, it took volunteers and contractors about 20 years to remove all the spruce, restore the woodland and put it on coppice rotation.

Nationally, such short-sighted large-scale tree planting has actually contributed to carbon emissions. Around 10-20 per cent of the UK’s peat bogs have been drained for forestry, yet the bogs absorbed more carbon than the conifer forests planted on them. In this case, tree planting contributed to a net increase in carbon dioxide.

Strategy: Quality and Quantity

Instead of panicking into planting, a strategic approach is required that involves woodland owners (particularly Woodland Trust, Essex Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Birchanger Wood Trust, etc), landowners, farmers, conservationists, the Forestry Commission, local business, schools, tree officers and other interested parties. The district council cannot, on its own, take responsibility for reforesting our district, but it can have a role in bringing agencies and stakeholders together. Government agencies should support this endeavour in order to meet stated afforestation targets.

I would suggest the following measures:

  • Promote hedgerows: Hedges are simply pruned trees. They provide wildlife corridors and enhance biodiversity, yet some areas of the district – such as fields around Great Chesterford – are almost devoid of hedges, becoming agrarian deserts. A hazel hedgerow around a 10 hectare field would see the planting of around 6,350 trees. A farm with five 10-hectare fields would have 80,000 hedging trees. If the hedgerows are well managed, they can be a great benefit to wildlife. Opportunities
  • Promote coppicing: A coppice stool – such as ash, hazel and hornbeam – is far more valuable for carbon absorption than a newly planted tree. A stool will produce a multitude of stems which can provide sustainable woodland products such as beanpoles, fences and firewood. Coppicing opens up areas of woodland to light, assisting with biodiversity. An established medium-sized woodland of around 100 acres with a coppice rotation of 10-15 years would yield up to 25 tonnes of firewood per annum. This is a gross calorific value of 525,000MJ (based on an energy yield of 20MJ/kg) which is the equivalent of 146,000kWh or the annual electricity consumption of 37 homes. Also, my experience has shown that regular coppicing of ash stools helps fight ash dieback as the epicormic growth overcomes the progression of the fungal infestation.
  • Support the establishment of commercial forestry: Encompassing coppiced woodland but also including establishing standard trees, investment in commercial forestry would improve the domestic supply of building materials, thereby reducing the need to import from potentially unsustainable source and reducing transportation costs and associated pollution from shipping. It would also generate local employment.
  • Disease management: Assist landowners to restock trees lost to disease in order to maintain woodlands and advise on effective management of disease and pests.
  • Garden trees: Householders with gardens should be encouraged to plant trees responsibly, so they don’t become a nuisance. Advice could be given on the most appropriate trees for gardens of all sizes.
  • Woodlands as amenity land: Instead of planting trees in park lawns, woodlands should be created as the public amenity land for new communities planned for the district.
  • Build a forest: Uttlesford cannot achieve any significant afforestation without looking at creating at least one new forest, preferably extending out from an existing ancient woodland. The district should seek government support to create a new forest with a broad mix of species and a range of amenity, conservation and commercial purposes. A large project could pool funding and investment better than potted schemes and individual initiatives here and there.

These are just some rough ideas, for which policies may have to be developed and funding received to realise. There are probably even better ideas. Uttlesford needs to start the ball rolling and work out a strategy that it can lobby and promote. Otherwise, its efforts will be haphazard and in vain.