To plant or not to plant, is that the question?

When it comes to regeneration, nobody does it quite like everybody’s favourite Time Lord Dr Who. Except perhaps for trees!

In a Guardian article at the end of September, environmentalist George Monbiot argued that we have “a national obsession with tree planting” but that actually allowing trees to self-seed and spread themselves naturally is a faster more effective way of enabling carbon sequestration. It also, he wrote, tends to produce far richer habitats.

This was echoed in Climate change: the trouble with trees, a short film produced by The Economist which argues that tree planting is perhaps not the silver bullet in tackling the climate crisis that it’s made out to be. Albeit a very important tool in the tool box.

This in turn was picked up in a recent Sussex Wildlife Trust blog which, like Monbiot, stated that natural tree regeneration is much better for carbon storage but rarely attracts funding in the way that tree planting does.

“At the moment,” wrote SWT’s Living Landscape Advisor Fran Southgate, “we are still cutting down our ancient forests, and then expecting newly planted trees to make up for the loss of our ancient megaliths.”

The right kind of tree love

It’s hard to escape the idea that tree planting is the panacea we’ve been looking for to prevent more than 1.5-2 degrees C of global heating. A couple of weekends ago, in a two page spread, The Telegraph exhorted everyone to do their bit and plant a tree. Ahead of Tree Charter Day on 30 November, the Woodland Trust and others are asking a million people to plant a tree in a Big Climate Fightback campaign carrying the hashtag #EveryTreeCounts.

And indeed it does. That’s not really what’s in contention. The argument, if I’ve understood Monbiot and co correctly, is that planting new trees can take decades to even begin to resemble a natural forest. Ecological restoration via the regeneration of existing woodland will pay greater dividends far quicker.

The Knepp Estate in West Sussex is an oft cited example of rewilding success where allowing the trees to seed naturally has doubled the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil within 20 years.

At Northwood on the National Trust-owned Slindon Estate, also in West Sussex, the charity is undertaking its largest ever woodland restoration, returning 185 acres of farmland back to its woodland landscape of 100 years ago.

Granted, thousands of new trees – 21 native species in total – have been planted there in the past five years but large areas of saplings have also popped up all over Northwood thanks to the surrounding rich seed source. As a result, this year has seen the site record the arrival of rare butterflies like the purple emperor and the green hairstreak for the first time.

Time for a heated debate?

It feels a little counter-intuitive to be challenging the notion that tree planting is maybe not quite the magic tonic the current media narrative would have us believe.

As I’ve written before, there is no shortage of benefits that trees bring, from locking up carbon to improving the soil to helping manage flood risk to improving biodiversity.

But at the heart of the matter is the way in which tree cover is increased, and with it the need for a more nuanced discussion around nature vs human nurture…

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

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