Is DEFRA gas-lighting the media and general public about the scale of new tree planting or is the national media just indulging in some good, old-fashioned nostalgia? Coverage of the latest government announcement on tree-planting targets begs the question.

THE UK government’s Nature Recovery Green Paper and Environmental Targets consultation was launched on March 16.

Within hours, DEFRA’s press office was proclaiming “extensive coverage” given by national newspapers and TV networks on “the government’s new long-term environmental targets and green paper proposals that will protect and enhance our natural world”. Links to obliging media websites were supplied, so I clicked on an article published by The Times.

TREE-PLANTING TARGET INFLATION

“Millions of acres of trees to be planted [in England] by 2050”, screamed the headline. And there it was for all to see, the government’s 2050 tree-planting target for England mysteriously and miraculously boosted by a factor of 2.5, but without actually moving an inch. This was due to the peculiar position of a premier national newspaper quoting government tree-target figures in acres rather than hectares – but why? It was clearly not a journalistic one-off to get an eye-catching headline, because every last figure relating to tree planting and woodland area, including figures documented as hectares in a recent National Audit Office report, were quoted by The Times article in acres. One hectare is 2.471 acres.

The hectare is the accepted and official unit of measurement for land area, used for many years in most walks of UK commercial and civic life, including agriculture, forestry and construction. Indeed, there are legally binding requirements on landowners to register a change in land use, including planting of trees on agricultural land, arable or pasture – irrespective of whether or not it is covered by a government grant-aided scheme – in hectares.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Forestry Journal: Public perception of woodland – English bluebells under English oakPublic perception of woodland – English bluebells under English oak

So why on earth would DEFRA and the FC wish to feed the general public with tree-planting targets expressed in a redundant unit of land area which appears to inflate tree-planting targets? To Joe Public, does one million acres look more impressive than 400,000 ha? 

Smarter, sceptical readers or viewers would see such news coverage for what it probably is. Unfortunately, the majority will simply see the headline number – a million acres of trees to be planted in England – and give the government credit for extra ambition (although it is beginning to look unachievable regardless of whether it is in acres or hectares). 

The Times article opened by saying: “More than a million acres of trees will be planted by 2050 under legally-binding environmental targets proposed by the government. The proportion of land covered by trees would rise from 14.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent by 2050, meaning an area larger than Kent would be planted [with the one million-plus acres of trees].” 

However, a crucially important caveat is missing, because the figures they are using relate not only to National Forest Inventory woodland, which currently stands at just 10.3 per cent for England, but ‘tree cover outside of woodland’, which pushes the figure up to 14.5 per cent. 

The term ‘tree cover outside of woodland’ appears to be bit of a dog’s breakfast, covering a multitude of sins from dense shrub and tree growth along railway tracks to the lone street tree outside your house, offering welcome relief for your neighbour’s mutt. 

It’s worth pointing out that when first calculated by Forest Research in 2017, this figure stood at 14.6 per cent, which means that over the last five years tree cover across England has actually fallen, albeit by just 0.1 per cent. Surely all the wordage and verbiage on tree planting over recent years must have counted for something. Tree cover should be increasing, not stalling – and certainly not falling.

SCATHING REPORTS AND COMMENTS

All this comes hard on the heels of a recent report from the National Audit Office which slammed DEFRA’s tree-planting targets for England as unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved. Then, five days after the government’s announcement of its green paper, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee (a cross-party group of MPs) published its own Tree Planting Report (2022) accusing ministers of a “lack of focus” and “needing a comprehensive plan to support greater planting”. 

Described as ‘scathing’ by Forestry Journal, the EFRA Committee report makes a series of demands. These include a consultation on tree-planting incentives involving both DEFRA and the FC, and an action plan to double the amount of home-grown timber consumed in the UK. The Royal Forestry Society stuck the boot in by welcoming the EFRA report.

READ MORE: NAO tree planting report: Taking a closer look at the UK's failure to hit targets

Both the NAO and EFRA reports cite a lack of qualified and experienced personnel on the ground acting as a barrier against government achieving its tree-planting targets and goals. Though not specifically called out, both reports imply lack of funding will be instrumental in preventing the government from achieving its goals.
With raves and ratings like these, ministers clearly have to do something. But instead of knuckling down and getting real trees in the ground, we are being ‘gas-lit’ by outdated, archaic and essentially redundant units of land area which artificially inflate the figures.

A BIT OF A WHEEZE

However, let’s cast our minds back to 2017 when recording and inclusion of ‘Tree Cover Outside of Woodland In Great Britain’ was raised by Forest Research via the National Forest Inventory. I clearly remember where I was when I first learned about the concept – on a train to Surrey to cover a story for Forestry Journal. 

My first impression was of a wheeze that gave abysmally low tree-cover figures a shove without having to plant one new tree. However, looking out the train window I recognised the benefits to be gained from including railway embankment woodland which, over the whole country, must amount to a tidy sum, providing a previously missed opportunity. 

Forestry Journal:  Spruce seedlings safely in the Sussex soil in March 2015, but an exception to the rule for the south of England over the last several decades with conifer planting falling away. Spruce seedlings safely in the Sussex soil in March 2015, but an exception to the rule for the south of England over the last several decades with conifer planting falling away.

However, shortly afterwards, starting in 2018, National Rail and its ‘Chainsaw Charlies’ blew the wheeze away with wholesale woodland clearance up and down the country, destroying millions of trees and associated wildlife in the process.

Wildlife & Countryside Link, a coalition of conservation groups, welcomed the government’s tree-planting target while saying better protection for existing woodland, particularly ancient woodland, is required. It identified, as others have done, that despite ongoing new planting, the tree-cover figures for England are essentially static and perhaps suffering from a ‘one foot forward, one step back’ malaise.

Talking about wildlife, the government’s Nature Recovery green paper is also pledged to stop the spiralling decline in wildlife by 2030, and then go on the front foot to increase wildlife populations by 10 per cent from 2030 to 2042. However, wily old rewilders and nature conservationists saw straight through this one. They pointed out (indeed stated the bleeding obvious) that a 2 per cent decline per year over the next eight years until 2030 represented a 16 per cent decline and therefore net decline of 6 per cent, even if wildlife population levels are raised by 10 per cent between 2030 and 2042.

MIXED MESSAGING

On May 18, 2021, Secretary of State Eustice (EFRA) delivered a speech at an event hosted by the wildlife trusts where he said: “Sadly the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world” and that targets would “set a clear, long-term plan for nature’s recovery and help the government achieve its commitment to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030”. 

So much for the long term, but there is a lot George could do now. Like having strong words with his chum, the MP for Dorset West, who is upset because the Dorset Police are investigating the killing of protected white-tailed eagles in highly suspicious circumstances. Or perhaps finding out, as a matter of urgency, why and how a lone landowner was allowed to desecrate the riparian environment along a substantial stretch of the River Lugg in Herefordshire, which is a designated SSSI. 

Forestry Journal: Harvesting or new planting, English forestry requires increased numbers of qualified and experienced personnel on the ground.Harvesting or new planting, English forestry requires increased numbers of qualified and experienced personnel on the ground.

Indeed, I would love George Eustice to explain why DEFRA is offering grants of £1,600 a hectare under the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) for planting woodlands along riverbanks, while the landowner responsible for what happened along the River Lugg was in possession of a felling licence to carry out the work (apparently the reason why the FC quietly ducked out of the subsequent furore, leaving the Environment Agency and Natural England to instigate legal proceedings for the damage caused).

In 2021, National Rail felled trees without warning at the East and West Reserve in the London Borough of Hackney. The reserve had been designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation in 2002. Volunteers had fitted owl, bird and bat boxes in the reserve, which is home to 40 species of birds, including tawny owls, peregrine falcons, nightingales, and greater spotted woodpeckers, along with 70 species of plants and flowers. 

At the time, a spokesperson for Network Rail’s Anglia Route said the company would work more closely  with the community, adding: “We normally tell our neighbours about this kind of work before we begin, but in this case we didn’t nor did we explain why we were doing it, or how we’d mitigate against its impact. This was wrong and caused a lot of upset for which I’m sorry.”

Not as sorry as the wildlife, I suspect. Such a range and richness of wildlife is clearly a blessing anywhere, but if you live in an inner-city area like Hackney, it is an irreplaceable treasure.

There were allegations that some work had been carried out during the designated bird-nesting season (1 March to 31 August). Not believing an organisation like Network Rail could be so stupid, I re-read one of its circulars on vegetation management (7 September 2021) to residents of the towns on the line between Welwyn Garden City and Knebworth in Hertfordshire. “We will be working between September 2021 and April 2022”, it said, but why not cease work on 28 February 2022, and avoid the official designated nesting season?

CONSERVATION ORGANISATIONS ARE WILD

DEFRA has at least one ally in Natural England. CEO Tony Juniper said of the report: “All of this can help us to fulfil our pledge to have 30 per cent of land and sea protected by 2030, and to halt the decline in the abundance of wildlife by then too – just eight years away.” 

However, Natural England apparently has its own intrinsic problems related to personnel on the payroll and which could impact on the government’s wildlife conservation pledges, according to a recent article in the Guardian. 

Quoting a Trade Union report, the March 1 article said Natural England’s staff are so underpaid that it is threatening the UK’s ability to attain net-zero pledges. Natural England is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by DEFRA.

Forestry Journal: Superb Scots pines shown here and undergoing harvest on a Surrey site. Replanting would take place but the felling licence excluded any conifers despite them having completely outperformed the scruffy oak and sweet chestnut over the previous 50-plus years.Superb Scots pines shown here and undergoing harvest on a Surrey site. Replanting would take place but the felling licence excluded any conifers despite them having completely outperformed the scruffy oak and sweet chestnut over the previous 50-plus years.

Other groups with vested interests in wildlife conservation are not so obliging. Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB, said the announcement showed a “woeful lack of ambition in keeping common species common and protecting the spaces that wildlife depends on.”

She continued: “We need a roadmap for restoring nature within a generation, but these proposals are an alarming sign that decision-makers feel what we see today in our nature-depleted country is good enough.”

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife Countryside Link, was no less scathing, commenting: “We have seen a 150-year decline in wildlife, so it’s great that the government wants to arrest that. But under today’s plan we could end up no better off than we are today.” 
He cited the absence of any ‘big ideas’ from DEFRA to ensure that sites and species designations can play their part to halt nature’s decline.

SORTING OUT THE SITUATION

All in all, the responses to yet another set of promises, pledges and positioning from government on new tree planting, woodland creation and wildlife conservation and creation – the latter, more often than not, reliant on the former – has not been good. 

However, for me, two salient points protrude above and beyond what is rapidly becoming a policy with the density and impenetrability of a blackthorn thicket infused with bramble.

Some five years ago, the Guardian ran an article asking if the word ‘Kafkaesque’ was so over-used it had essentially lost all meaning. This may generally be so, but ‘having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality’ (which is the dictionary definition of the word) effectively sums up the situation for me, which is a visible wilting of the government’s new tree-planting and woodland-creation programme, and its associated conservation and promotion of wildlife in England.

Secondly, there is a general misconception about exactly who the UK government and its agencies are talking to and targeting with their continual stream of announcements.

Sadly it is not the forestry industry, because there are too few votes in the boondocks, where forestry, by its very nature, is embedded. 

No, the target is voters in marginal suburban constituencies like those in my own neck of the woods, on the northern fringes of London. Like the Chipping Barnet constituency of Theresa Villiers (remember her?), the extremely short-serving DEFRA Secretary (July 2019 to February 2020) currently sitting on a toast-type majority of 1,212. However, there is some conservation for the lady because she represents superb ancient woodland at Monken Hadley Common, the last authentic part of the old Enfield Chase Forest. And then there is the Chingford constituency on the southern edge of Epping Forest, currently represented by Ian Duncan Smith, currently sitting on an equally small majority of 1,262.

Forestry Journal: Powerful conservation lobbies have established the ground rules for all exotic conifers being bad.Powerful conservation lobbies have established the ground rules for all exotic conifers being bad.

This is precisely why the government appears to take little notice of the constant hand-wringing by forest industries about the slow pace of new planting and apparent rejection of planting conifers to secure future supplies of home-grown softwood timber. Nature-loving suburbanites are much more receptive targets for its propaganda.

The forestry industry needs to appeal directly to the general public in order to refute the established wisdom that broadleaves are all good and conifers all bad when it comes to conservation and encouragement of wildlife. There are masses of studies out there, going back years, which question this simplistic thesis. What about the birds which thrive in plantations of so-called ‘alien’ conifers like Sitka spruce, including the recently reintroduced white-tailed eagle in Scotland? And the nightjar, flagship species for the high priests of lowland heath, a bird which is well at home in conifer plantations provided there is patchwork of compartments at all stages of growth and development?

READ MORE: EFRA tree planting report 2022: UK Government criticised for 'lack of focus' and push for homegrown timber

Warnings about a lack of home-grown timber for the future cut no ice with the general public. They don’t even seem to care that home-grown food production is almost certain to fall, ironically in part due to more tree planting, so why should they worry about home-grown softwood timber? In their eyes, timber production is very much secondary to conservation and wildlife. The job here for the forestry industry is to inform, persuade and convince that you can have both at the same time.