UK

Row over UK tree-planting drive: ‘We want the right trees in the right place’

The natural bowl in the Northumberland hills studded with dumpy young conifers looks innocuous enough. But the English borders are the scene of an increasingly bitter battle as ambitious government tree-planting targets collide with concerns for rare plants and birds.

The government is seeking to dramatically increase tree planting to 30,000 hectares of new trees in the UK each year, with plantations sequestering carbon and helping the government reach net zero emissions by 2050.

But conservationists accuse the Forestry Commission, the government agency that must deliver the new trees, of spending taxpayers’ money on non-native plantations, some of which damage peatlands and imperil rare species and habitats.

In Cumbria, the commission admitted it made a mistake in funding a new plantation on peatlands at Berrier Farm that threatens blanket bog and grassland including 100 species of plants such as the heath spotted orchid.

This month conservation organisations including Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and Dorset Wildlife Trust criticised Forestry England, the commission’s business arm, for replanting much of Wareham forest in Dorset with conifers instead of restoring more biodiverse open heathland.

In March last year, 192 hectares of the forest was accidentally burned, and the charities urged Forestry England to restore what was once species-rich heathland instead of planting another timber crop.

But possibly the most contentious site is in Northumberland, where the commission has begun a dispute resolution process to decide whether to fund a landowner’s proposal for a plantation called Wallshield 2, which is opposed by the RSPB, the Northumberland national park authority and Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog.

David Morris, the RSPB area manager for Cumbria and north-east England, said: “Ministers and Defra are breathing down Forestry Commission necks to get trees in the ground. We want to see trees in the ground but we want the right trees in the right place. We would say they have gone for one of the worst places with Wallshield 2.”

Just 2,330 hectares of trees were planted in England in the year to March 2020, and the Forestry Commission must deliver vast increases. Tree planting is hugely popular and environmental charities are urging more ambitious targets. Friends of the Earth wants to double Britain’s forest cover to 26%. The Woodland Trust wants to plant 50m trees over the next five years, while the National Trust has called for 20m this decade.

But, fuelled by generous planting grants, including money to fund specialist surveys and £200 per hectare per year to maintain trees, predominantly non-native plantations are being planted on “marginal” – cheap – farmland, including some wildlife-rich places.

Wallshield 1, planted on rough grassland five years ago, was opposed by the RSPB and Natural England because of its size and proximity to rare and declining ground-nesting birds such as redshank, golden plover, black grouse and curlew.

These birds cannot nest in woodland, and the new trees become a haven for predators – carrion crows, buzzards, foxes and badgers – that attack the ground-nesting birds in the landscape beyond.

Natural England removed its objection to Wallshield 1 when the proposed plantation was reduced in size, creating a 300-metre buffer zone of open land between the new trees and the land where curlew nest. But five years after Wallshield 1 was planted, a new plantation, Wallshield 2, is being proposed on that buffer area.

The RSPB argues that the Forestry Commission’s ecological surveys are inadequate. Under the commission’s rules, it does not have to take the impact of the original plantation into account, and only considers the impact of the proposed plantation on the land itself.

A study by the British Trust for Ornithology has identified the area around Wallshield as a hotspot for curlew, with between two and seven nesting pairs in every square kilometre.

“If a landowner wanted to put in wind turbines on that site they wouldn’t get away with the Forestry Commission’s level of surveying,” said Morris. “They are doing substandard ecological monitoring and they are being paid to do so by the taxpayer. It’s all a bit smoke and mirrors and behind closed doors. It is public money and it should be open to proper scrutiny. It’s an amateurish system that’s failing nature.”

According to Morris, the system whereby the Forestry Commission “marks its own homework” – its purpose is to plant more trees but it also assesses each application – is fundamentally flawed. He is also critical of the fact that the commission only surveys the sites, without taking into account their impact on surrounding wildlife.

“We seem to be reliving some of the decisions that our colleagues were having 40 years ago when the Flow Country was being afforested,” said Morris. The planting of conifers on the peat bogs of Scotland’s Flow Country in the 1970s and 1980s – driven by generous tax breaks – is widely accepted by foresters and conservationists to have been a catastrophe that damaged unique bogland habitats and increased carbon emissions.

Forestry Commission rules ensure that no plantation can be more than 70% one species, and it no longer permits tree-planting on “deep” peat – deeper than 50cm – because plantations degrade the peat and increase carbon emissions. But many conservationists argue that plantations should be banned on shallow peat as well.

Crispin Thorn, a director of the Forestry Commission in north-east England, said Wallshield 1 and 2 were the only disputed cases among a huge number of woodland creation schemes in his region over the past two decades.

“There’s a huge level of ambition to create more trees and woodlands as part of the response to the climate emergency, and there’s also the opportunity to connect that into the biodiversity nature crisis,” he said. “But we also have a responsibility to assess individual schemes that come forward and take a balanced view.”

According to Thorn, an independent committee will consider Wallshield 2 and “seek an appropriate compromise” before national forestry commissioners make the final decision on whether to provide grants for the plantation.

Wallshield 2 “involves a significant amount of the additional area that was taken out last time, so I’m acutely aware it’s sensitive,” said Thorn. “The sensitivities predominantly centre around breeding waders and we’ve considered that issue carefully. We’ve had a number of sites in the north-east where the applicant hasn’t been able to proceed because of breeding waders or priority habitats. We do look to guide applicants and help them understand what’s feasible.”

Thorn said the current system for assessment did not require a survey of the wider impact, but he pointed out that each potential site was looked at against the criteria for a local wildlife site in order to determine if it would have an impact on the environment.

Of the accusation that the Forestry Commission “marks its own homework” by being both regulator and responsible for increasing tree-planting, Thorn said: “I don’t agree with that view. We’ve also got a statutory responsibility to have due regard for the environment. I don’t support the view that just because there’s a big target, we’re keen to accept schemes that aren’t appropriate.”

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