There is no point planting trees if we don’t look after them

This post is by independent tree consultant, Paul Wood

In case you hadn’t noticed, trees are having a moment. And you can expect them to have an even higher profile over the coming days as 2020’s National Tree Week gets under way.

National Tree Week takes place at this time of year to mark the start of the planting season: trees are dormant during the winter months, so planting from November through to March gives them the best chance of hitting the ground running come the spring. Tree planting is of course a much touted panacea for our climate and pollution ills, but actually sticking them in the ground is only the beginning.

Millions are being spent on tree planting initiatives, but far less cash and far fewer column inches are devoted to their aftercare.

Newly planted trees aren’t surviving
I believe we’re facing a crisis, particularly in our towns and cities, where staggering numbers of newly planted trees don’t survive their first year or two after planting. The Sunday Times reports that up to 30 per cent of new street trees don’t make it and, this summer, in Hackney (an area of London otherwise noted for its impressive commitment to tree planting), thousands of saplings died because they were badly planted and little aftercare was provided.

It’s not just young, newly planted trees, our care for mature trees is wanting too. In Sheffield, protests by residents intent on the protection of thousands of mature trees due to be felled for very tenuous reasons made headlines across the world. Many of those trees were century old limes planted as memorials after the First World War, but for cost conscious contractors, they represented a liability. The expense of maintaining big trees (despite their valuable, and quantifiable contribution to making cities more liveable), was trumped by short term cost reductions achievable by replacing them with three metre saplings. Doncaster is facing similar problems, while big, historic trees have been felled in places like Swansea and Birmingham in recent years.

Magic money tree
At the heart of many of these horror stories is cost. While we happily shell out millions to plant trees, we struggle to find the money for their long term care and, it seems, we have less regard for historic urban treescapes than we do for historic buildings. A headline of ‘millions to be invested to look after trees’ somehow doesn’t cut the mustard, but this is what we need. After all, the benefits trees offer only really start to apply when those trees are big and well established. But just maybe the tide is beginning to turn.

During Lockdown 1.0 many people noticed, as if for the first time, nature all around them. Townies appreciated parks, street trees and urban woodlands like never before and, for many, the logical next step was to find out more. Some are even getting involved with grassroots organisations making a difference on the ground.

From tiny acorns…
Attitudes towards trees and the environment have shifted and, as politicians have realised, planting trees is often a vote winner, but how can the promise of a bosky future be secured?

Here are some suggestions.

We need to get communities involved. Many people want to feel they are doing something to improve their environment. What better way than to ensure trees survive, and deliver on their promise for years to come?

In Lewisham, a local charity, Street Trees for Living might be a good model to follow. It raises money to plant trees, but crucially, empowers local residents to maintain them too. It has planted over 1,000 trees in the past five years and has seen failure rates drop from 30 per cent to just five per cent.

Meanwhile, in leafy Chiswick, another group, Abundance London, are piloting a technology-driven scheme enabling motivated residents to become ‘Tree Champions’ who recruit and manage groups of volunteers to adopt trees and build community. They even remind adopters to water their trees during particularly hot spells.

Elsewhere, Save Our Street Trees Northampton have campaigned for their council to provide better care of trees, including through the appointment of a specialist tree officer, a post that has been unfilled for at least seven years.

These groups, and many others involved in similar initiatives to care for trees up and down the country, can play a crucial role in responding to the climate crisis. If more of us are given the tools and resources to replicate what they are achieving locally now, we could have a more forested future for our towns and cities.

Paul Wood is an independent tree consultant and author of several books about trees in London including London is a Forest. His latest book, London Tree Walks, was published in October.

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