Planting more trees could kill us. Credit: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

December 18, 2020   5 mins

I like trees. Sometimes I come over all Prince Charlesy and talk to ours, even pat their trunks. I have managed woods, written books praising trees, and I practise a bit of “agroforestry”, the farming system which combines trees with grass for grazing by Ermintrude, Shaun the Sheep, and Little Red Hen. But tree-planting in the UK is now a destructive mania. We need a moratorium on trees.

Trees have inexplicably, unaccountably, become the magic wooden bullet for all environmental ills. Anxious about flooding? Well, forget dredging rivers or digging up the suburban concrete drive, just plant a tree. Anxious about the climate effect of your  cheap plane ticket to Thailand? No worries mate, pay a bit extra to get some minion down on Earth to stick a tree in a hole. Trying to win a general election? Commit your manifesto to trees, trees, trees. Oh Jeremy Corbyn at his last tilt at Number 10 pledged that a Labour government would plant two billion — billion trees by 2040. Or, half of Wales, planted up at commercial density.

The electorate read this as “magic money trees” and shied in the polling booth, though Boris’s government, itself not lacking in amour aboreal (or indeed in the discovery of theurgic trees that fruit GBP), has committed itself to planting a whopping 75,000 acres of trees annually until 2025. The Green Recovery Challenge Fund — effectively an arm of DEFRA — last week allocated almost £40m to 68 projects to plant more than 800,000 trees, including 10,000 trees at 50 NHS sites and 12 “tiny forests” the size of a badminton court in urban areas.

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Stop planting more trees!

By Peter Franklin

Everyone is at it, this tree-planting palliative. I do mean everyone. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has decreed that we in the UK need to stick into the ground 90-120 million trees a year between now and 2050 to achieve carbon neutrality. Craft beer company Brewdog has grabbed 2,000 acres of Scottish highland to plant a million trees. The National Trust is on the band wagon; Britain’s largest private landowner has promised to insert 20 million trees into its land over the next decade. The Woodland Trust, meanwhile,  has launched an Emergency Tree Plan. Not enough trees yet? Danish clothing magnate Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife Anne, who own over 200,000 acres of Scotland, are removing sheep and deer across their estates to allow more native woodland. 

Aye, and there’s the first rub. Quite aside from the Povlsens’ self-entitled decision about how to use their land (HG Wells’ Dr Thoreau would have enjoyed their droit de dicatator), the Danish duo’s re-treeing is removing a chunk of land from food production. Sheep and deer are rather good at providing meals from the uplands for us poor humans. Haunch of venison, anybody? Kebab? Num num. 

But tried eating oak leaves? Fir cones?

It all starts to add up, this public and private tree-planting. What remains is the simple arithmetic of farming, because humans, damn them, will eat: abstract land from food production, and you are left with either a lot of food miles from importing enough to keep your population alive, or the intensification of agriculture — with all the associated pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, molluscicides — on the remaining land. It gets worse. If we are not getting protein from an Aberdeen Angus cow up a glen, it is likely we are getting it from a soya bean grown in the Amazon on what was once primary rainforest.

Make no mistake as you read this: the land is already under demand to produce more, more, and then more food. As long as a decade ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the global population would increase by 34% by 2050, to 9.1 billion. It added that “in order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production … must increase by 70%”. 

Brilliant, eh? The trees planted in order to save us from climate change … will kill us by starving us. 

The sanctification of trees is curious. They are hailed as carbon sequestors, but so is the grassland on which cows mosey and munch. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by the way, had deduced that methane from Britain’s ruminants is not causing further global warming.) Trees are lauded as increasers of biodiversity, the lament of our British naturalists being that we only have 13% tree cover and the European Union has 40%. (Continental Europe is always lovely and good isn’t it?) But have these naturalists ever been to the Black Forest? Poland? The Landes region of France? The lot of them, vast tracts of silence and desolation. 

I spend part of my year bang next door to a 5,000 acre forest in France. The parts of it le forestier are able to manage — by chopping and pruning trees to let in the light — are wonderful for wildlife, and nightingales sing there, but the larger unworked regions are dense, dark and conquered by invasive bramble.

So, there is the second rub. Treeland is not intrinsically better for nature. To be cruelly honest, my neighbour Philippe’s chemical corn fields have more wildlife than than most of our neighbouring natural forest. 

Undeterred by such freely available trans-European evidence, the Rewilding Britain pressure group of Britain reported this week that it wants native woodland to regenerate through the natural dispersal of seeds. Unfortunately, without a management plan — and I looked in the small print in vain for such — this is a recipe for an immense soundless mausoleum propped up by wooden pillars. 

I know. It goes against the grain, but if we do have to have trees for biodiversity they need to managed, not left to their own darkening devices. Trees are hegemonic. Unchecked, trees would take over the world and place it under their shadow. 

Now for the next and third rub, prompted by the clan chief on the Isle of Skye, Hugh MacLeod, deciding recently he needed to go wild and reforest 572 acres of his  Scottish  outcrop (that sense of territorial entitlement again) courtesy of a handy £1 million grant from the EU and Holyrood. According to chief MacLeod the island’s lack of tree cover is “not natural.”

Neither, I suggest, is living in a castle. If you want “natural”, Hugh Magnus MacLeod of MacLeod, try a cave as your abode. 

Mark my words: such reforesting is the thin end of the re-wilding wedge. Macleod has already signalled his intention to reintroduce beaver. The wolf and lynx will follow, and Skye will become a rewilded theme park, with the food — no longer produced locally, of course, because all the shepherds will have been transformed into tourist guides — coming over the sea on a bonny, smoky, diesel-engined boat. 

Britain is an agricultural country. It has been farmed since the Neolithic period, and today’s open landscape would be absolutely recognisable to an Anglo-Saxon. These isles’ celebrated “quilt-pattern” of fields and hedges is the work of people, the result of agri-culture, and is not to be lightly thrown aside, or forested over. The farmed countryside is “the past speaking dear” as the Poet Laureate John Masefield once put it. It is heritage. 

Take the Lake District, beloved of  that other great pastoral poet, Wordsworth. The hills of Cumbria were revealed into glory from their scrubby oak and rowan shroud by the farmer’s iron axe and the gnashing teeth of his/her sheep. And well done them. 

Really, why vaunt “natural”? Some of the best places for the wild things are actually human made — meaning, the farmed environment. A traditional hay meadow may  easily contain 30 plant species per square metre. The overwhelming majority of ponds in the British countryside — and there are few things better for the bugs, birds and beasties than a mere — were dug by the farmers of yore. Now there’s an idea for mass government funding: restoring Britain’s ponds. 

That rasping sound? Me grinding my farmer’s axe. The carbon-sequestering benefits of planting trees are frequently hyped yet rarely weighed against what existed there before — such as peaty moorland burnt regularly to renew the heather. Peatland is a particularly efficacious carbon sink. 

In fact, the tree-planting proposals put forward by some conservation organisations will actually annihilate precious ecosystems. The reforesting map drawn up by Friends of the Earth and Terra Sulis marks out as suitable land the rough pastures of the North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales. Er, these farmed and thus awful “artificial” habitats are critically important for the iconic, red-listed curlew, lapwing, grey partridge and black grouse. 

Not much of a deal, is it — if, instead of the cry of  the curlew, we have the hiss of wind through the needles of a Sitka spruce? 

Trees are lovely, but to propose them as the one and only eco-solution is false premise. And false promise.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.