Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. Well known to many across the industry, John Weir spent the latter part of his career focused on the issue of climate change. Recently retired from his position as advisor for woodland creation and resilience at the Forestry Commission, he was instrumental in preparing guidance on managing woodlands in a climate emergency – guidance which is still being ignored.

LOOKING back across history, I can point to three times the state has encouraged us to plant trees, and there was always a clear purpose. In the early 1800s, when England began planting thousands of ship oaks, it was motivated by the Napoleonic Wars. With the building of the British Empire, we could get timber from elsewhere, so it wasn’t until World War I that another desperate drive for tree planting was undertaken. In the aftermath of World War II, the reason was the same – we needed timber.

When I joined the FC we were just coming to the end of that era. In the early 1980s I was still planting 400–500 hectares of Sitka spruce a year because it was the prevailing practice. By the turn of the 21st century we had entered a new period where the focus had shifted from timber to a fuzzy greenwash that was dominated by broadleaf planting.

Those now pushing hardest for new planting weren’t interested in timber. They wanted more trees because they’re nice.

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That thinking, which continues to dominate much of the conversation, is the reason we planted thousands of hectares of what had the potential to create valuable hardwood timber, only for it to be eaten by grey squirrels and deer.

It also led me to feel a bit irrelevant, as an old-school timber-production forester at the FC, and so in 2002 I went to the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, where I became interested in climate change in a big way. In studying the subject, I began to realise the scale of the looming crisis, but I also came to believe forests could play a significant role in mitigating its impacts.

In 2009, I became the FC’s climate change programme manager, authoring the Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP), which was then adopted as policy throughout England’s public forest estate.

The message for me was always a clear one – we must plant more trees to sequester carbon, and they must be woodland mixes that are resilient to the challenges of a changing climate. 

So I find it really odd that in the last few years, while politicians have been arguing about numbers of trees they want to plant and trying to outdo each other, none of them wanted to engage with the real purpose behind this need for more trees, which was to sequester carbon rapidly to help mitigate some of the worst impacts on society from the climate emergency. The fact that these trees also had to thrive through the climate emergency was lost.

It seemed that when Zac Goldsmith came into DEFRA the emergency was forgotten in favour of poetic ideals around broadleaves and the biodiversity crisis, to the exclusion of the climate emergency. The Woodland Trust has captured the hearts and imagination of government which is going along with every word it says because it fits comfortably with its own dogma and a populist idea of what trees can be about. I found it really difficult, towards the end of my career, to see DEFRA siding time and again with the Woodland Trust instead of listening to its own experts at the FC who were calling for the need to ensure sequestration happened quickly and that the trees planted were fit for the future.

I strongly believe that if it weren’t for the Woodland Trust’s efforts to follow only its own agenda, to the exclusion of the rest of the industry’s needs, planting using the right trees adapted for tomorrow’s climate would be much further forward.

Forestry Journal: Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith

The people with the ear of government have a blind spot about climate change, which is their conviction that local and native is right. They keep spouting the message that, because they’re adapted to local conditions, ‘native’ trees are always the fittest, but they ignore the fact that local conditions have changed and will change further.

More than 10 years ago, I could see problems with pests and diseases in England were going to get much worse and all my work focused on ways to try to make woodlands more resilient, such as diversification of species, genetics within species, stand structure and the potential of tree breeding and assisted migration.

You only need to look to Ips typographus to realise the problems we’re facing. Already present in England as a result of wind and a warming climate, we’re going to have the perfect environment for this pest – and others like it – in the future. Yet we’re still paying big grants to people to plant tree species we know are almost certainly going to be hammered. 

Responsible foresters have got to think about resilience now, and they’ve got to think about how we mitigate against the worst of these pests and diseases.

We’re right in the middle of a climate emergency. We need to suck up as much carbon as quickly as we possibly can. Young trees grow faster than old trees, so the idea of growing, removing and replanting is a very sensible strategy going forward, as long as we ensure the timber is used to replace products such as concrete , steel, plastics, etc and reduce our carbon footprint.

That should be the purpose driving our planting programmes. Not because we want a nice, pretty tree in a nice, pretty place. We lose our way when we stop seeing trees as timber. We have to plant trees for society to get the best results for the climate crisis, but instead we’re giving money to people to produce squirrel food.

I really believe things could change. But it needs a strong government prepared to take action. Currently, a lot of impressive statements are made at the top, but not much is being achieved. We’re sitting on our hands as planting rates in England fall even lower. We’re doing nothing seriously about squirrels and deer. And we know we need to plant different types of trees, but we keep carrying on, failing to do what we know we need to do.

In the past, great tree-planting programmes were undertaken because government and society demanded it. Everyone understood the dire straits we were in. At the end of WWI we created the FC and gave it a clear mandate of what government wanted it to do, and it went ahead and did it. In Scotland, government has given a pretty strong mandate to Forest and Land Scotland and it seems to be getting on with things. But in England, it’s all watered down.

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I do feel really sorry for foresters south of the Border. We’re all hearing the ambition, but the politicians have no spine to do anything about it. And the blame never lands with government. It goes back to the FC again.

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Today’s FC has been emasculated, but, given a clear objective and the power to achieve results, it would get on and do it. It’s proven it can do it before. Equally, it could be done through the private sector, but it has to be a clear mandate. Make clear what needs to be done and go for it – and stop the populist nonsense.

I would love to see well-thought-through forests getting planted which are ecologically based in their thinking, with species selection based on ecological function to the site and an understanding of what the future climate will be.

What I don’t want to see are thousands more hectares of broadleaves planted at ridiculous 3-plus metre spacings, producing an awful lot of expensive squirrel food. How can that be anyone’s idea of ‘the right tree in the right place’?

Why do people who believe in the role of trees in a climate emergency choose not to listen to their own expert in the Forestry Commission? If only there was a willingness to implement their current advice on adaptation:


The above is an edited version of a transcribed conversation between John Weir and Forestry Journal editor John McNee.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.