Phil Sparrow continues the story of Danny, a young forester whose enthusiasm to try anything and grasp every opportunity recently found him working on a planting project.

ONE advantage of the artistic freedom permitted when writing for Forestry Journal is that it occasionally allows for a little divergence. So, before I head off on the theme of tree planting, I’ll share an interesting event with you which disturbed me somewhat.

At the start of the week an impending storm apocalypse was predicted for the UK. The only salvation any of us could hope for was the ability and means to build an ark. It was said it would reach its heights on Thursday and it was with some trepidation I peeped gingerly from the safety of my cottage window that morning expecting to see destruction on a grand scale. Instead, the sun shone in a clear blue sky and the sea sparkled in the distance. There was a pile of cumulus to the west, but then there usually is. Keen to get out, I suggested to my wife we go for a walk along the beach.

The beauty of Bamburgh beach is that it’s huge. There could be hundreds there, but it would still feel as though you were the only person. The air was so clean and the heat from the sun was starting to evaporate the moisture from the sand so that a thin mist hovered above the surface of the beach. It was quite ethereal. We removed our shoes and walked slowly southwards in the gentle surf, almost tempted to plunge in. I say ‘almost’ because despite its Mediterranean appearance the water temperature is still only about 12 degrees.

As we ambled along, enjoying the tranquillity of the scene, I became aware of a family up ahead. They were heading from the dunes towards the sea, consisting of mum, dad and child who, like all young children, was running ahead of the adults towards the sea in excitement. I remember doing the same thing myself. Our trajectories meant we’d meet roughly at the same point and, as the child – a young girl – approached the sea, her mother, about 20 metres back, screamed at the top of her voice: “Stop! Don’t go near the water! Don’t you dare get wet!”

Despite both adults wearing face masks, you could see fear and trepidation etched across their brows. What was the fear, I thought to myself. Some mysterious rip tide about to whisk her away to Norway or the fact that she might come into contact with a couple of unmasked locals? Either way, it seemed a massive overreaction. Is it just me who wonders what has become of this green and pleasant land where freedom is valued and risk adds a frisson of fun to life?

Forestry Journal:

Apparently, it’s the government’s aim to plant 30,000 hectares of ‘woodland’ throughout England by 2025. Give or take several million, that’s roughly equivalent to 60 million trees. That’s a lot of trees in a very short space of time! Between 2019 and 2020, a total of 13,660 hectares were planted throughout the UK; 2,330 in England, 10,680 in Scotland, 200 in Northern Ireland and 80 in Wales. That means 27,670 hectares need to be planted in England in the next four years to reach this target; roughly 50 million trees. Aside from the many organisations entrusted with the management and protection of the countryside – who will no doubt be vying for a slice of the pie – one of the key aims is to meet the government’s ‘net zero’ aspirations by 2050. In other words, by 2050 it is hoped that, as a country, what we emit is counteracted by how we contain those emissions. Growing trees locks up carbon and this can be measured and valued. This has led to the introduction of a scheme called the Woodland Carbon Guarantee.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 4)

Farmers and landowners are encouraged to plant more trees and create new areas of woodland and in return they get payments as the trees grow over a 35-year period. The trees lock up carbon as they grow and the volume is assessed and sold back to the government at a fixed price. So, by my calculation that means over the next four years some 55,340,000 trees need to be planted in England to meet this target. This is the UK’s contribution to slow down global warming by reducing our carbon emissions and containing some of the other carbon in trees.

Forestry Journal:

I suppose it’s fine if you can persuade the rest of the world to do the same, but when one considers that China is building over a hundred coal-fired power stations a year it feels like a losing battle. It’s a laudable aim and shows Britain is trying to play its part. However, has it occurred to anyone in government just who is going to plant all of these trees? Furthermore, where does one obtain 55 million saplings? What species? Are there growers/nurseries out there to prepare this number? The glossy-eyed out there imagine this utopian vision of dense woodland surrounding urban areas interspersed with wild flower meadows and beaver-dammed streams. Something akin to the cover of The Watchtower!

The brutal truth is there needs to be a coordinated plan and an army of healthy young people to go and plant the trees. Let’s consider the current reality...
What some urban dwellers forget is that during this pandemic, while they were being furloughed, the trees continued to grow. People continued to chop them down and mills continued to process the timber and people also continued to plant them. Ever one to take advantage of an opportunity, Danny responded to yet another invitation, this time to plant trees.

Forestry Journal:

Like many outdoor trades, tree planting is hard work. Areas identified for planting are often remote and the terrain is challenging. Saplings (usually in bundles), tree stakes and plastic protectors all have to be carried to the site. There are rarely hotels nearby and so a caravan is essential. On this occasion, there were no sites nearby and so the caravan was parked in the woods as near to the area for planting as possible. There was a spade for a loo, a generator for power and a red animal feed tub as a bathroom. As this was now the height of the pandemic, all the pubs were shut and meals usually consisted of baked beans, warmed to varying degrees on the car heater.

The government has talked a great deal about ‘levelling up’, but it’s interesting at this point to mention ‘Danny’s law’. Basically, in the north of the UK, a planter would be expected to plant roughly 200 trees per day for a certain amount of money. Down south it would be 100 trees for the same amount of money. To you and I, a millionaire is a millionaire. However, the millionaires in the South seem richer than the millionaires in the North! The South is more densely populated and estates seem to be smaller, beautifully managed and pristine with precisely designated areas for planting. The North is more random – bigger, wilder and less clearly defined, with bogs, rocks and heather. So if there were such a thing as a ‘plantometer’, then the further south you go the earnings pointer rises and number of trees expected to be planted declines – and vice versa.

Forestry Journal:

Danny had arranged to meet a local manager who would explain procedures for the duration of the time he’d be there. John Parker is a tall, athletically sculpted individual with calloused hands and a razor-sharp mind. At a designated rendezvous the two pickups parked side-by-side and Danny jumped from his vehicle, keen to receive his instructions and get working. Danny, enthusiastic as ever to learn, waited in anticipation as John gingerly extracted himself from his pickup. He seemed flustered and held out a hand of greeting while still attempting to attend to something in the back of the pickup with the other. What transpired was that John had two dogs, one of which was an old spaniel. It was now incontinent and had defecated all over the rear seats. John was attempting to shake hands and clear up dog dirt from the seats at the same time. Danny knew there and then that the two would get along like a house on fire!

Tree planting can be a very solitary activity and not for everyone. It can mean days and days of isolation in all kinds of weather. As you are generally paid per tree, the rewards can be good and it’s relatively easy for a manager to authenticate or verify your results. I have heard of a case in Kielder forest where a manager discovered a neatly dug pit containing 500 Sitka saplings! On this occasion, Danny had travelled down with a friend of his from Northumberland who was no stranger to tree planting. The system was simple.

One person digs a hole, plants the tree and knocks in the stake. A second person moves all the equipment (trees, stakes, tubes etc) onto site, lays out stakes next to the planted tree ready to be knocked and puts the tube protector on at the end. Using this system they were able to average roughly 700 trees per day.
May be 55 million trees by 2025 is achievable after all!