WFTT aims to team up with businesses, NGOs, landowners and other organisations to foster the planting of more trees. On the face of it, any increase in tree numbers has to be a good thing. But my own recent experience shows that it’s not always that simple. You can plant the wrong tree in the wrong place.
On my small (8-acre) plantation in County Durham I inherited both the stunted, deer-chewed saplings from the previous owner and part of the maintenance grant to look after it (more of that later). That means engaging with the Forestry Commission (FC), whose main remit is to look after commercial forestry but also to take a view on strategic forestry and woodland policy and administer stewardship schemes like the Woodland Creation Grant (more of THAT later, too). I have got to know my local woodland officers from the FC, as well as the county Wildlife Trusts. We learn from each other, and the relationship is very positive. The other key relationship is with neighbours and the public. I have two neighbours – one has trees, the other has horses. There are always potential tensions between neighbours whose interests might not align perfectly; so it takes effort, and sometimes diplomacy, to maintain harmony. Knowing the law on such things as boundary maintenance and livestock trespass is essential.
I’m hooked into a network of other local woodland owners through a community landscape partnership called the Land of Oak and Iron. They have their own woodland officer, Peter Downes, who I’ve known for years (see The Wisdom of Trees). Peter arranges woodland networking days; volunteering opportunities; education and training; and he fosters a sense that shared experience and wisdom benefits all parties – especially the trees. I have also got to know regional land agents; and it has been pleasantly surprising how keen they are to help local initiatives that support ecology and wildlife, even though there’s no direct money in it.
Even with all these potentially supportive organisations and people, tree planting is complex, especially at the planning stage. Large tree planting schemes require a type of planning permission, and Environmental Impact Statements. The FC are generally very helpful on such matters; they will guide prospective tree planters through the various procedures and hurdles they need to overcome. Trees have a big impact on landscape, drainage, soil, vegetation and wildlife; so it’s right that all these are taken into consideration. And then there are the lapwings…
I like a lapwing; wonderful looking things with their squared off wings, peevit call and protective acting displays when nesting. But I didn’t know much about them until a few weeks ago when my partner Sarah and I went to have a look at a piece of land about five miles away, further up the Derwent Valley and set in heather clad moorland where there are many sheep and few trees. The land is hill pasture, bounded by square drystone walls. Fifteen acres of it are up for sale. Apart from tightly cropped grass, its interest lies in its topography. On one side it slopes down to a narrow heugh (a northern term for land that is seasonally flooded) by a rushing burn, fringed with gorse, willow and ash trees. So the land has three ecologies (the large flat fields; the slope; and the burnside), each of interest; and there is terrific potential to start a new woodland.
So, I have a conversation with the land agent handling the property: I want to know if there are any restrictions on what I might be able to do there; where exactly the boundaries are (does it include the burn bank, and access to the water?); and how long it has been on the market (they are usually coy about the last question). While I’m waiting for him to get back to me, I call on my Forestry Commission contacts and send them a copy of the plan, to see what they think of it. Nice spot, they say; but have you thought about the curlews, the lapwings, the AONB, the SSSI, the SAC, and SPA? And have I checked the HER?
Clearly not. Let’s start with the TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms). Special Area of Conservation; Special Protection Area. They mean rules and restrictions, obviously. SSSIs are most likely to be encountered with trees in ancient woodlands: they are Sites of Special Scientific Interest; and the umbrella for all these acronyms is the AONB: the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty: the moorland, the birds (those lapwings); the upland hay meadows, the lead mining heritage etc etc. So, the land in question has all sorts of tags associated with it. I already know all about HERs: the Historic Environment Record. As an archaeologist I deal with that all the time. It’s our national register of built and below ground heritage, maintained and administered county by county.
This may all seem daunting; but there are paths through the mire. Next up, I make contact with the AONB to see if there’s anyone I can have an informal chat with: there’s no point going any further if they are going to red flag my plan before it starts. Meanwhile, I log onto MAGIC – the mapping service of DEFRA (Dept of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs): https://magic.defra.gov.uk. That has detailed maps of the whole country; they show ancient woodland, land use, habitats and, particularly, any statutory designations on a piece of land. I can click on the plot I’m interested in and it will show any or all listings. It turns out that the plot in question, designated ‘improved pasture’ has no specific designation; no ancient monuments; no red alerts for nesting birds. Good. But – there’s always a but – it is surrounded on all sides by acronyms; and this tells me that lots of individual officers with responsibility for aspects of conservation and habitat management are going to scrutinise any plans minutely. Since the AONB, Natural England and English Heritage are statutory consultees to the planning process, the Forestry Commission will naturally refer any ideas I might about planting trees to all these bodies. Potentially it’s an alphabetti spaghetti junction of hurdles over which I might think it too much of an effort to jump.
I already knew that planting trees on moorland is no longer considered a good idea: existing peat is a better carbon store than young trees. But I didn’t know, as I do now, that the North Pennines AONB supports 50% of all the lapwings and curlews in England. So even if they are not nesting on this plot (shoo shoo little bird; nest somewhere else please), it’s part of their extended feeding range: a potential red flag.
But I also notice something else when looking at all the various maps: about a kilometre upstream and downstream from the plot are two smallish native woodlands. I also know from my own experience on Thistle Wood that young plantations, far from being immature, inferior habitats in comparison to mature woods, are actually richly diverse in species: we have two species of owls hunting there every evening in spring and early summer; there is a profusion of grasses and new flowers; small nesting birds are invading; the new pond has tadpoles, mayflies and dragonflies. My case will be that a small reduction in lapwing habitat is more than compensated for by the new, rich woodland habitat that will link two existing, but distant, native woods.
As lockdown slowly eases I’m able to make my case personally, to the AONB’s own woodland officer, who agrees to meet me on site (strictly 2m apart). We chat about the various issues and what sort of trees will grow well here; about the detail of planting density; about deer and rabbits; we talk about the specific case of the heugh (a micro-habitat in its own right); and, naturally, about the lapwings. He agrees to put my case to his colleagues and, although they cannot give me a definitive answer without my formally submitting an application to the FC, it’s worth finding out: will they veto?
The other card I want to play is the local community. The plot is a short walk from a small village which has a community hall, two pubs and a youth hostel. These, too, are potential partners: I would want to get the community to take an active interest in the project; to be able to enjoy both the woodland as an amenity (I am not a fan of PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs), as an education resource and, potentially, as a draw for tourists. All these factors play a part in the overall potential for my planting scheme to get the thumbs up.
All of which is to say that when planting trees, there are lots of partners to engage. Almost all of them are very supportive of establishing new woodlands: in the right place, with the right trees. Knowing how the various systems work beforehand arms the prospective planter with key knowledge. It allows you to have conversations in which you look like you know what you’re talking about and that you’ve thought hard about what and why you are planting. If you can get them on board, then you have a much better chance of succeeding.
As for the plot of land, the word from the AONB is that they are cautiously supportive; they accept that there is a broad benefit to my plan; that the lapwings can be accommodated by a sufficiently sensitive planting scheme. It’s great news.
It’s now over to us: do we make an offer and take a small risk of reversal…? Or not? Watch this space…