The new England Tree Strategy has to be about more than numbers

This post is by Andrew Allen, lead policy advocate – land use at the Woodland Trust and John Deakin head of trees and woodlands at the National Trust.

The new England Tree Strategy, due later this year, must be more than a plan for planting bark covered carbon absorbing machines. Our trees and woods need a bold vision to expand, connect, restore and protect them so they are also good for nature, climate and people.

Public policy around trees can feel like being lost in the woods. There are long periods of quiet and shade punctuated by occasional moments of political light breaking through the canopy.

We are having one those moments now. Led by the 25 year environment plan and the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) net zero proposals, the role of trees in resilient and diverse landscapes and their carbon trapping skills have pushed them onto the political agenda.

More trees is an election promise
The CCC envisaged tens of thousands of hectares of new forest planted each year to soak up emissions. This led to an eye-catching bout of tree ‘Top Trumps’ during the 2019 General Election, with the main parties trading ever greater commitments to plant millions of trees.

But the England Tree Strategy, which is being consulted on until 11 September, should do much more than just set out a pathway to planting for carbon capture. Officially intended to last until 2050, it should be a comprehensive vision not just of how many new trees we want, but also where they should go and what type of trees they should be. For trees planted using public money, that means maximising their value by making sure they can filter our air and water, protect against flooding, contribute to mosaics of habitats and landscapes and create opportunities for leisure, as well as absorbing carbon and much more besides.

The strategy needs a suite of meaningful national targets that combine both quality and quantity requirements. Of the 30,000 hectares of new trees and woods the government has committed to establish by 2025 (a target well below what the CCC has called for), the majority should be native species. Where they go has to be planned on a large scale so they can contribute to mosaics of nature-rich habitats.

The strategy should commit to supporting natural regeneration. Although not viable everywhere, making space for native woods and forests to expand and regenerate naturally, rather than relying solely on new planting, will help trees respond to a warming climate and reduce habitat fragmentation.

We need to look after the trees we’ve already got
And it is not all about woodland expansion. Crucially, we need to look after our existing native trees and woods better, many of which are in poor condition and face threats from disease and development.

Just one disease: ash dieback, is on track to kill up to 90 per cent of one of our most common species at a cost of £15 billion. Countless diseases like this threaten to enter the UK via imported saplings and seed. The strategy must urgently tighten biosecurity and increase investment in the nursery sector so that trees planted with public money are safe from these diseases and are UK sourced and grown.

Ancient woodlands require particular protection. They are a vital part of our heritage and the crown jewels of woodland habitats ecologically. However, with over 800 ancient woods currently at risk from development, planning policy must be tightened to protect this irreplaceable resource, before any more of it disappears beneath tarmac and concrete.

The Environment Bill should provide legal support
Of course, targets and commitments are the easy part. Tree policy is littered with undelivered strategy commitments. To make a real change, the forthcoming Environment Bill has to give the new strategy a statutory footing with enforceable targets, a clear process for review and links with long term funding, including via the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme.

Trees are a powerful, natural tool in the fight against climate change, but they are much more than carbon sponges. A strategy which expands, connects, restores and protects our trees and woodlands is a tantalising prospect. We look forward to working with the government, forestry and conservation sectors, and communities, to develop the bold, well-resourced vision for trees we need.

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