What’s often seen as an environmental silver bullet could be disastrous, for humans and wildlife alike…
Ilike trees. Sometimes I come over all Prince Charlesy and talk to ours, even pat their trunks. I have managed woods, written books praising trees, and I practise a bit of “agroforestry”, the farming system which combines trees with grass for grazing by Ermintrude, Shaun the Sheep, and Little Red Hen. But tree-planting in the UK is now a destructive mania. We need a moratorium on trees.
Trees have inexplicably, unaccountably, become the magic wooden bullet for all environmental ills. Anxious about flooding? Well, forget dredging rivers or digging up the suburban concrete drive, just plant a tree. Anxious about the climate effect of your cheap plane ticket to Thailand? No worries mate, pay a bit extra to get some minion down on Earth to stick a tree in a hole. Trying to win a general election? Commit your manifesto to trees, trees, trees. Oh Jeremy Corbyn at his last tilt at Number 10 pledged that a Labour government would plant two billion — billion — trees by 2040. Or, half of Wales, planted up at commercial density.
The electorate read this as “magic money trees” and shied in the polling booth, though Boris’s government, itself not lacking in amour aboreal (or indeed in the discovery of theurgic trees that fruit GBP), has committed itself to planting a whopping 75,000 acres of trees annually until 2025. The Green Recovery Challenge Fund — effectively an arm of DEFRA — last week allocated almost £40m to 68 projects to plant more than 800,000 trees, including 10,000 trees at 50 NHS sites and 12 “tiny forests” the size of a badminton court in urban areas.
Everyone is at it, this tree-planting palliative. I do mean everyone. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has decreed that we in the UK need to stick into the ground 90-120 million trees a year between now and 2050 to achieve carbon neutrality. Craft beer company Brewdog has grabbed 2,000 acres of Scottish highland to plant a million trees. The National Trust is on the band wagon; Britain’s largest private landowner has promised to insert 20 million trees into its land over the next decade. The Woodland Trust, meanwhile, has launched an Emergency Tree Plan. Not enough trees yet? Danish clothing magnate Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife Anne, who own over 200,000 acres of Scotland, are removing sheep and deer across their estates to allow more native woodland.
Aye, and there’s the first rub. Quite aside from the Povlsens’ self-entitled decision about how to use their land (HG Wells’ Dr Thoreau would have enjoyed their droit de dicatator), the Danish duo’s re-treeing is removing a chunk of land from food production. Sheep and deer are rather good at providing meals from the uplands for us poor humans. Haunch of venison, anybody? Kebab? Num num.
But tried eating oak leaves? Fir cones?
It all starts to add up, this public and private tree-planting. What remains is the simple arithmetic of farming, because humans, damn them, will eat: abstract land from food production, and you are left with either a lot of food miles from importing enough to keep your population alive, or the intensification of agriculture — with all the associated pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, molluscicides — on the remaining land. It gets worse. If we are not getting protein from an Aberdeen Angus cow up a glen, it is likely we are getting it from a soya bean grown in the Amazon on what was once primary rainforest.