Dr Terry Mabbett looks at whether or not the grants on offer from the UK government are worth the time. 

TAKING centre stage in new tree planting and woodland creation is the England Trees Action Plan, launched in June 2021, with a 7,000 hectare/year target of new planting by the end of the current parliament. This is more than three times the 2,060 ha of new planting in England for 2020–21. 

That was down on the 2,300 ha created in 2019–20, but an improvement on the average 1,306 ha for 2016–18. A lot clearly hangs on this initiative from DEFRA, the Forestry Commission and the Westminster government, and the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO), worth £16 million for farmers and landowners, is a key component of the plan.

EWCO offers a 100-per-cent capital grant of up to £8,500/ha as support for capital items and activities required to establish new woodland. It is described as a maximum payment, with actual rates depending on such factors as nature of the site, tree species planted and requirement for rabbit and deer control.

READ MORE: Woodland Creation Offer: 10k tree-planting offer to farmers will help reduce UK's reliance on timber imports, says Forestry Commission chief

Also in the plan is 10 years of annual maintenance payments of £200/ha to help establish young trees once the capital works are complete. This would cover items like tree seedling and sapling replacement, pest management and weed control.

Other goodies are additional payments for: 
• Nature Recovery – up to £2,800 per ha for woodlands that restore nature and species
• Flood Risk – £500 per ha for woodlands that help reduce the risk of flooding
• Water Quality - £400 per ha for woodlands that will improve water quality
• Riparian Buffers - £1,600 per ha for woodlands along riverbanks that improve habitat
• Close to Settlements – up to £500 per ha for creating woodlands close to where people live
• Recreational Access – up to £2,200 per ha for providing access to woodlands for the public to enjoy

When EWCO was launched in June 2021, FC chairman Sir William Worsley introduced farmers to the concept of ‘AGIG’ (as good as it gets), by urging them to crack on with tree planting because payment awarded under the EWCO “is going to be as generous now as it is ever going to be”.  

In January 2022, Richard Stanford, the FC’s chief executive, told farmers how people who have been in the industry for a long time were saying these are the most generous grants for a generation.

So just how generous are they? And could they actually get better? Feedback from forest nurseries and others in the industry suggests £8,500/ha should cover the financial cost of getting the trees into the ground and cover items and activities such as: purchase of seedling trees, stakes and tree shelters and perimeter fencing;  planting the trees; and pre-plant costs such as weed control as part of land preparation. Whether or not the government is prepared to go even further with grant money for tree planting and woodland creation is up for discussion. 

Forestry Journal: Richard StanfordRichard Stanford

At first glance, 7,000 ha/year doesn’t sound an awful lot but no-one should underestimate the sheer size of the task ahead. It means the new land area planned for this current season will essentially have to equal the total new area (7,320 ha) planted with trees over the period from 2017 to 2021.

What’s more, new tree planting and woodland creation cannot be considered in isolation from national ‘woodland cover’, which in itself is a moving entity. Significant areas of existing woodland are being blown over and damaged by inclement weather or suffering sanitation felling due to alien pests and pathogens such as chalara ash dieback, Phytophthora ramorum and, most recently, Ips typographus and Phytophthora pluvialis.

Time, energy and money in restocking and replanting these areas will clearly take away resources from new woodland creation. Not to mention trees and woodland lost forever by the restoration of heathland and the creation of open habitat, wholesale clearance of trees and woodland from railway embankments and collateral damage caused by big infrastructure projects like the HS2 railway. 

READ MORE: Tree planting: Do new statistics tell us the UK’s 30,000-hectare target won’t be met?

As the months and years roll by, the UK government will be desperate to get trees into the ground. Indeed, it is beginning to sound evangelical about tree planting and the creation of broadleaf woodland. But another moving target is the actual length of the current Westminster parliament given the increasing speculation about a change of prime minister and pressure on an incumbent to go to the country and seek a new mandate.

Speaking in January, and subsequently reported by Forestry Journal, the FC’s Stanford said planting trees will mean farmers and landowners growing more home-grown timber and reducing UK reliance on imported timber, while reaping the financial rewards in time.

But exactly what type of timber was he referring to and over what sort of time scale? In a question-and-answer session with Farmers Weekly in January, Stanford said: “It is understandable that there is some hesitancy. This [timber] is a crop that will take 100 years to come to full fruition.” 

He is clearly not talking about planting conifers and harvesting softwood with all the economic advantages of thinning, with the first thinning taken as early as 13–15 years post planting, and a complete rotation of around 50 years – roughly half of that for hardwoods. What’s more, if a farmer establishes broadleaf woodland on his farm now, what’s to say that in 100 years’ time there won’t be legislation that forbids the felling of semi-natural broadleaf woodland for timber? There is absolutely nothing to stop a tenant farmer applying for an EWCO grant, although they clearly require permission of the landowner for the change in land use. But will the prospect of ‘profits’ in 100 years’ time offer the same incentive to tenant farmers as those who own the land?

Many farmers and landowners are clearly mulling over the financial pros and cons of planting trees to create new woodland and when exactly to do it, now or in the future.

Several years down the line they may well find a government so desperate to put down tree roots that George Eustice and the Goldsmith Bros (Zac and Ben) are prepared to don waterproofs and wellies and plant the trees for them.

AGIG (as good as it gets) could well become GEBAT (getting better all the time). Early indications of desperation were evident around Christmas 2021with the ‘begging bowl’ communication from Forestry England for £10 donations to help grow and care for forest, highlighted by John McNee in his ‘Letter from the Editor’ in Forestry Journal last month. 

The reward for donations of £10, in addition to helping to grow and care for one square metre of forest, is a ‘beautiful certificate’ to hang on your wall and certifying that you are completely insane for parting with a hard-earned tenner. With stunts like this you could almost imagine Forestry England hiring reject advisers from the prime minister’s office at No. 10 Downing Street, and especially since the request is targeted at Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England.