Pondering the problem of right and wrong throws up some interesting considerations when it comes to Wales’s planting aims.

IT’S nigh-on impossible to hear or read about tree planting and woodland creation without being coshed by the now legendary bandwagon slogan, ‘the right tree in the right place’. 

Lesley Griffiths, rural affairs minister in the Welsh government, is one politician who makes liberal use of the phrase, clearly energised by the increasingly hot debate on tree planting in Wales. Discussion is open and broad-based around carbon sequestration and climate change, farming, food production and forestry.

The minister is almost certainly exercised by the negative press about land grabs for tree planting by outsiders and its potential effect on rural family life and culture. 

Against this background, Mrs Griffiths has been setting out the Welsh government’s ambitious tree-planting targets, why they are important and how they will be achieved.


“Sustainably producing food and addressing the climate emergency are not competing objectives; failure to deal with one will affect the other,” she said. “Put simply, if we don’t take action now, the food delivered by farms, which we rely on, will become more difficult to produce in the years to come because of climate change.”

She would appear to be spot on, because the latest analysis by researchers at the universities of Bournemouth, Exeter and Sheffield shows more extreme or unseasonal weather accounted for a third of all food price inflation in the UK during 2023. All that said, any talk about timber appears to have got lost along the way.

Mrs Griffiths says the target of 43,000 hectares of new woodland for Wales by 2030 is ambitious, but is something Wales needs to do alongside emissions reductions in general. She told the agricultural press why she believed an active tree-planting policy will benefit farmers now and in the long run: “We want to work with farmers on the principle of ‘the right tree in the right place’. Planting trees can also become an asset over time by for instance providing shelter for livestock.”

Forestry Journal: A target of 43,000 hectares of new woodland has been set for Wales by 2030.A target of 43,000 hectares of new woodland has been set for Wales by 2030. (Image: Getty/stock)

Harvests of timber are not an asset then, and were not even mentioned in the Farmers Weekly article featuring the minister’s statement. It’s strange journalists did not push the point, considering the amount of advertising revenue being placed in farming publications by government departments to encourage farmers to plant more trees. 

Elsewhere, the minister said the Welsh government would work with farmers on the principle of ‘the right tree in the right place’, which could become an ‘asset’ over time in tackling the nature and climate emergencies. Once again there is apparently no place for timber as an asset in the minister’s mind. However, when you drill down into the 43,000 hectare or 86 million trees target it would appear the minister really is talking timber, but perhaps without realising it. Multiply 43,000 hectares by the standard planting density for conifers (2,000 per hectare) and – hey presto – you get exactly 86 million trees exactly, no more and no less. Tree-planting rates for native, mixed deciduous woodland are around 1,600 seedling trees per hectare.

Be that as it may, the most interesting bit for me is the minister’s obsession with planting ‘the right tree in the right place’, something I have been mulling over for some time in a UK context. What’s going down in Wales crystallised it all for me. 

Wales is on the western extremity of the British Isles and was therefore one of the last areas to be colonised by late-arriving tree species (e.g. common beech and hornbeam) coming across the land bridge from Europe after the last ice age. Wales has a mild and moist maritime climate which is frequently (but not always) conducive to tree disease development. So perhaps we should turn the principle on its head make sure we don’t put the ‘wrong tree in the wrong place’. 

I can see three angles to this inverted principle: 

• Some native tree species will be more suited than others to the climate, weather, and soil conditions prevailing in Wales. A classic case is oak (Quercus) and the two species native to the British Isles, – pedunculate oak (Q. robur) and sessile oak (Q. petraea). These two native oaks are not naturally distributed evenly across the British Isles. Sessile oak is a natural feature of semi-natural woodland in the north and west of the UK. The tree is so named because the acorns are not held on stalks like those of the English (pedunculate) oak, but are attached directly to the outer twigs. Natural distribution for sessile oak is upland areas (over 300 m) with higher rainfall and shallow, acidic sandy soils. Sessile oak copes better with coastal conditions and ‘petraea’ (of Latin origin) means ‘of rocky places’. On the other hand, pedunculate oak prefers deeper, richer soils at lower altitude and is therefore ‘the wrong oak in the wrong place’ in Wales.

• Some of the last tree species to colonise Britain, before the land bridge connecting mainland Europe with Britain was inundated by the sea, did not have sufficient time to reach the land which is today’s Wales. Natural distribution of common beech is south and east of a line from the Wash (Norfolk) to the Bristol Channel, although the tree did manage to naturally reach south-east Wales, where some of the finest beech trees in the country can still be found in Monmouthshire. Hornbeam only managed to naturally colonise south-east England. Fifteen years ago it was quite common to read about conservation organisations in Wales removing beech and hornbeam from woodlands. The argument was the trees were not native to Wales 
(wrong trees in the wrong place) and growing at the expense of true natives like common ash. However, I haven’t heard too much about this since Chalara ash dieback started to destroy common ash in 2012.

Forestry Journal:  There is an ongoing vibrant discussion about tree planting in Wales. There is an ongoing vibrant discussion about tree planting in Wales. (Image: Stock image)

• Some exotic conifer species traditionally grown in Wales for commercial softwood timber are already ‘persona non grata’ due to alien plant pathogens like Phytophthora ramorum or are at future risk due to the recent introduction of another economically destructive pathogen, Phytophthora pluvialis. Japanese larch has already been scuppered by P. ramorum. Western hemlock and Douglas fir clearly need watching after Phytophthora pluvialis reared its head in the UK, with Wales now the worst hit. And should Ips typographus move westwards from south-east England, then Norway spruce could also suddenly become another example of a wrong tree in the wrong place in Wales.

I like reading about tree planting and woodland creation in Wales. Not a lot appears to have been achieved so far, but at least the Welsh openly discuss the subject. Back in England nothing much is said and nothing appears to get done.