Keith Sacre of Barcham Trees considers promises made with the best of intentions and the challenge of implementing them.

I have been involved in the nursery industry for over 30 years and in all that time the demand for trees of all sizes has never been greater. Politicians at both a national and local level are increasingly supporting and implementing policies to encourage more tree planting across the UK. Ambitious goals are, with the best intentions, catapulted into the public domain often without any sound basis to assess whether these goals are either achievable or delivered when implemented on the ground. The focus is reduced to numbers and/or percentages without any real consideration as to what is being delivered and why.

The recognition of trees and the benefits they provide, and the increased focus on planting more trees, is to be welcomed and many would say long overdue, but there must be an outcome which can be summarised as ‘Trees: From Nursery to Independence in the Landscape’. This is the title of the British Standard 8545 published in 2014. Tree planting by numbers and percentages has a value, but this value is limited unless there is an accompanying vision and a means of assessing the success of tree-planting programmes.

Trees in Towns II, published in 2008, suggested that over 25 per cent of newly planted trees in the public sector failed and consequently never delivered the benefits to society intended. There has been little or no published data since this report which analyses how successful tree-planting programmes are and what benefits and public goods are delivered. Observation would indicate that planting success has not improved since the report was published. I can offer many examples of where tree planting, carried out with the best of intentions, has failed to deliver ‘independence in the landscape’ and consequently the public goods and benefits associated with trees have been lost.

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The Big Tree Plant was a government sponsored campaign in England in 2010 to promote the planting of one million trees in neighbourhoods where people live, work and play. Tree planting was financed through government grants with proposals for grant funding submitted by public authorities, NGOs and community groups. The scheme was considered a success and the planting targets achieved.

The Boris Johnson administration at the Greater London Authority sponsored the planting of 10,000 urban trees during each of his two terms of office. Again, planting was financed by grants with public authorities bidding for funding and the numerical targets were achieved. Many other governments have completed their own central and local planting schemes in addition to the numerous initiatives led by NGOs and others. All have been well intentioned but none, to my knowledge, have been subjected to long-term audit to establish whether the initiatives have delivered the benefits and public goods intended.

Currently, there are many planting initiatives in the public domain either being implemented or planned. The government’s welcome initiative and commitment to plant an additional 100,000 new urban trees over a two-year period commenced this planting season through the Urban Tree Challenge Fund. There is the ambition that all streets on new developments should be tree lined and there is the proposed Urban Forest Environmental Land Management (ELMS) where tree-planting initiatives are to be evaluated according to the delivery of one or more of six public goods.

It’s here that the performance gap becomes pertinent. Planting by numbers and or percentages is of value and to be applauded, but only if the benefits and public goods are achieved in the long term. This means trees must survive and grow and establishment must mean more than the planted tree coming into leaf for two or three seasons before succumbing to environmental pressures and gradually fading away before ‘independence in the landscape’ is achieved. I have lost count of the number of sites I have visited in recent years where newly planted trees are struggling or have failed. These sites include street tree plantings, parkland planting, community planting, plantings on new housing developments and many more.

Forestry Journal: How many admirable aspirations will become reality?How many admirable aspirations will become reality?

So why is this the case? The lack of adequate auditing has already been discussed, but this is not true of many local authorities which keep detailed records of planting and young tree development post-planting.

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The information in the public domain about tree planting and management is extensive and certainly beyond the scope of this article to outline in full. The number of research papers from the UK and beyond is staggering and almost beyond reading because of the volume involved. The two TDAG documents, ‘Trees in the Townscape’ and ‘Trees in the Hard Landscape’, offer extensive guidance as to best practice coupled with numerous case studies. BS 8545 Trees from Nursery to Independence in the Landscape, referred to above, offers stage by stage advice. It was published in 2014 and there is need for some updating, but the information contained in it is as good today as it was on publication. The TDAG Guide to Tree Species Selection, written by Dr Andrew Hirons and Dr Henrik Sjoman, is arguably the best of its kind, offering detailed information about individual tree species and their suitability for planting in the urban environment. There have, in recent years, supported by the Arboricultural Association, the London Tree Officers Association, Barcham Trees and many others, been many presentations at conferences and seminars in the UK from world-renowned researchers such as Dr Ed Gilman and Dr Gary Watson, whose book, The Practical Science of Planting Trees, published in 2013, remains one of the most comprehensive sources of information available. The above references are just the tip of the iceberg, so the reasons for the identified performance gap is not the availability of information and guidance.

During the many discussions had by the drafting panel of BS 8545, Tony Kirkham commented: “It is really easy to photograph badly planted trees but really difficult to photograph well planted and thriving young trees.” I would suggest that wherever you are reading this article you will not have to walk more than 1,000 metres to find examples of young trees poorly planted or poorly maintained that have absolutely no chance of delivering longevity, benefits, or public goods into the future. Please accept the challenge.

Discussions of the performance gap at recent TDAG meetings outlined the following:

• There is a lack of vision surrounding tree planting. While numbers (volume) and percentages (canopy cover) are used as criteria to inform tree-planting programmes there is rarely any accompanying long -term vision. The question of what is to be achieved by planting trees is rarely addressed in terms of the desired benefits or over what period those benefits are to be achieved. Assessment of the success of planting schemes is rarely assessed. The question as to whether the objectives of planting were achieved is rarely answered.

• It was generally agreed that practitioners, those who specify, procure, plant or manage young trees, have little or no understanding of the numerous nursery production systems and how best practice of those systems influences not only the procurement of high-quality young trees but the likelihood of eventual success in the landscape post-planting.

• It was also agreed that there is an inadequacy in the writing and enforcement of specifications. There is rarely any vision statement within a planting specification and rarely a full and clear description of the desired outcome. Performance towards this desired outcome is rarely measured even if there is an attempt at expressing one.

• Even with all the information available through research and best practice documents, planting is still often poorly executed with basic mistakes being made.

• Post-planting management is universally recognised as being poor. Watering regimes are still mainly addressed in terms of amount/frequency or both and not on the actual need of any newly planted group or population of trees. There is a general failure to recognise that the nursery tree is not the finished article but a stage in a growing and development process which needs to be considered for several years after planting. Hence the title of BS 8545: Trees from Nursery to Independence in the Landscape.

While a useful introduction to the subject, I suspect it is more complex. Your thoughts would be welcomed. Please contact me with your thoughts at

One thing is certain, unless the performance gap is closed, the anticipated and desired benefits achieved from mass tree planting are likely to be less than successful, with significant amounts of public money wasted.

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