Time to Concentrate on Urban Tree Planting

The flurry of great nature conservationists denouncing those tree planting schemes for the sake of tree planting is refreshing, but already ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ are many who have been responsible for such schemes as well as introducing a subtle twisting in the language to make it appear that we are all at fault.

The harsh reality for many conservationists is that private sector tree planting for amenity and private ‘conservation’ has largely been successfull, hence the growing importance of private estates and gardens in terms of biodiversity – but private tree planting schemes have been declining year upon year recently sadly. The success is not due to anything other than the fact that foresters and aroriculturalists as well as enlightened landscapers (and some farmers also!) have been using local provenance nurseries, planting with lots of open ground, using uneven aged trees, with clump planting where necessary, natural regeneration when possible and good ground preparation including extensive survey work. Land management practitioners do know what they are doing.

It is not the practitioners fault that chalara and the other huge array of pests and diseases are now loose in the UK landscape. I and I know of no other professional in the very small and diminishing still private sector for tree planting and associated specialisms who did not know exactly where their trees came from but we all suffered, particularly the small local tree nurseries and the plantsmen and women, at the same time as waves of mass imports of plants and wood products flooded in bearing hidden nasties.

The acceptance of the loss of local nurseries pushed out by garden centres and even supermarkets was always to have wider consequences beyond the lack of care and attention with regards the possibility of diseases – if you were to ask the average member of staff charged with the plants section of a supermarket or garden centre about Asian Long Horned Beetle, Oak Processionary Moth, Phytopthora ramorum etc, a blank stare was assured, and if shown a diseased specimen would try and classify it as something that could be treated by one of the numerous and useless ‘off the shelve’ products they stock. This is one consequence of the general disenfranchisement of land management practitioners, not helped by the long perpetuated believe by teachers and others that horticulture, agriculture, forestry and arboriculture were soft options and professions easy to enter for the ‘less gifted’ students – which is very far from the truth.

Additional problems were added by much spurious and widely publicised nonsense particularly from the far too insular UK gardening and countryside media and with a flood of rogue traders taking advantage of a weak industry it is no wonder that the general public have become far too comfortable in assuming that this industry is a cheap one – leading to lower and lower rates for independent professionals, a great many of whom have given up and moved abroad or moved into an another industry.

Therefore I would argue that all influences on the industry are too blame except the industry base itself and it is the duped wider public who inadvertently make the situation worse by purchasing cheaper, poor quality stock, by waiting to listen to their chosen celebrities opinion or by paying blindly into CO2 offsetting schemes or mass ‘conservation’ tree plantings because the voice of those who really do know has been drowned out, as with so many things now, land industry is like a swimming pool – all the noise comes from the shallow end, but this is disastrous for a science based industry.

And thus when it comes to major issues,such as pests and diseases, much is hidden from the public unless there is money to be made from it somehow. So unlike in France, where I am still reeling from the shock of actually being listened and paid well for my knowledge (not having to put up with the “Alan Titchmarsh doesn’t do it like that” comments) the UK continues to see unprepared fields of straightlined, even aged planting, where the trees are only upright because the tubex is used as a support and death rates are high because huge numbers of the trees have been planted too deep “to be on the safe side” – this type of planting is the result of trying to do it cheaply and ignoring site specifics. Thus the excellent studies and research from the UK, including that huge resource of material by the FC, is at least 30 years ahead of the majority of NGO planting schemes. Planting schemes which in themselves have helped towards the disenfranchisement of practitioners, not least due to the fact that volunteers are used well beyond their limitations. Planting schemes that we know not where the trees were sourced from.

There are many small scale NGO schemes which are fantastic; the ITF had an initiative where a decent parent Oak tree was sought, the acorns were collected and brought on by different people including schoolchildren and the resulting saplings given away at the ‘county show’ and many small local NGOs have similar intiatives, which work because they are local. And one cannot fault the Elms project by the Conservation Foundation, which is as much about research as it is about reintroducing the Elm into urban landscapes or the Trees for Life natural regeneration of the Caledonian Pinewoods.

Tree planting should never have been and can never be constrained to fixed national guidelines, as the FC and many in the private sector know – but the media ignore this fact and any organisation hoovering up what they can in the dismantling of the FC will be far too heavily aligned with the frankly useless UK general media (when it comes to any issues with regards land management it is only considered worthy of reportage if it is deep in the heart of a rural designated landscape) to bother to try and work to the absolutely essential methods of site specifics, particularly if volunteers will form the core labour in implementing any kind of work.

Tree planting should have been occuring in the peri and urban landscapes for many many years by now, instead it has been thwarted by all funding (grant aid and public donation) flowing into a huge array of ludicrous and self damaging ‘designations’ that litter our landscape as rubbish does in the canopy of a lone  roundabout.

It is the urban and peri urban landscapes where tree planting is safe, where experiments and research into diseases can be easily and often by default subject to easily quarantined zones, where pests are not as prominent and more easily controlled and where soils are already as damaged as they can be. And if finally the ideals of Ebenzer Howard are to be embraced then we need a solid and well respected land management practitioner base to ensure it can actually be implemented – but in the UK the thought of anyone having to actually pay more themselves towards the greening of the cities and towns has been well and truly demolished by the fat cat NGOs, who if considering case study from Europe and North America, are quite clearly the biggest block in actually getting trees that survive into the ground for future generations to enjoy.


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