Protect Britain’s ancient trees

British trees have found themselves featured in the press fairly regularly over the past couple of months – mainly due to the apparent madness of Sheffield City Council deciding to remove thousands of healthy specimens seemingly for no other reason than that it would be expensive to revoke the instruction now that it’s been given. The decision provoked dogged resistance from locals, and even caught the attention of the environment’s surprising new ally, Michael Gove. These sorts of decisions matter – not just because they’re aesthetically unappealing (I can’t think of many people who want to live in a city stripped bare) but because as a nation we need all the nature we can get.

We know that global biodiversity is plummeting partly as a result of climate change and intensive chemical-fuelled agriculture – the French have recently recorded alarming reductions in bird numbers (so significant that experts are warning it could spell disaster for Europe’s wildlife) and Britain has been identified as being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One of the key factors behind this global dilemma is habitat loss.

In the UK, ancient woodland – constantly under threat from the pressure to “develop” green areas – is one of our most valuable habitats. What isn’t necessarily so obvious is the fact that a single veteran tree is in and of itself a crucial wildlife habitat – a little universe humming with life, a microcosm of diversity. According to Back from the Brink, 2000 species depend on ancient trees for their survival in the UK. Fungi, beetles, birds – as the Woodland Trust explain on their website, the fact that ancient trees are in a state of prolonged decay makes them a vital and complex home for a rich variety of flora and fauna. And crucially, as the Woodland Trust also goes on to point out, ancient trees often aren’t located within existing woodland. They are the solitary remnants of former hunting forests, the ancient guardians in our oldest churchyards, pockets of wilderness in housing estates and city centres.

Biodiversity aside, these ageing monuments to centuries past also offer us romance and mystery – a tangible reminder of what our landscape used to be, the connective tissue joining us to the millions of people who walked under their shade before us. Our ancient trees – Tolkein’s Ents – have born witness to princes and poachers, lovers and mourners, scrumpers and twitchers. And as a nation, we obviously do care. The protestors in Sheffield – ordinary people moved to take action by the bizarre destruction of their city’s trees – seem to be on the cusp of forcing something of an about turn. John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, George Monbiot – there’s a reason nature or countryside writers are in the ascendancy in Britain. Millions of us feel a keen affinity with our natural world, and as such want to see it protected.

And the first step in ensuring that protection is to enshrine it in law and government policy. Whilst it’s heartening to see that the campaigning of organisations like the Woodland Trust has led to new protections for ancient woodland in the  National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) , inexplicably individual trees have been excluded explicitly from these safeguards. It’s a critical oversight which seems to ignore the value of these precious habitats – and which encapsulates the pressures being felt by vital habitats the world over.  What we need to remember – to paraphrase the excellent videos made by Conservation International over the past few years – is that we need nature. It doesn’t need us. So let’s take the opportunity to remind the Government that whilst the developments regarding woodland protection are extremely welcome, individual trees are also of critical importance to our nation’s ecology. We have until 10 May to respond – the Woodland Trust makes it very easy to do so via their website: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/support-Woodland Truststronger-planning-policy-for-ancient-woodland/.

Tree Charter

In 1217 King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to 1215’s Magna Carta. In the reign of King John (signatory to the Magna Carta and notorious Robin Hood villain) roughly a third of the country was made up by the royal forests, and there had traditionally been brutal punishments for “forest offences” (like poaching, or hunting protected deer). The Charter of the Forest redressed some of those inequalities by establishing a right of common access, thereby enshrining the rights of people to farm, forage and use the land to support their livestock. In essence the Charter achieved two significant things: first, like the Magna Carta, it recognised the fundamental rights of the common man; and secondly, it acknowledged that critical relationship between the English and their woodland.

As the centuries have rolled by our landscape has been stripped of much of its woodland by industry, farming, an increase in the population and most recently, the effects of climate change. As I have mentioned previously, it now covers less than 2% of the country;  indeed Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands. And our trees are constantly under threat from new pressures – like fracking, and the toothless National Planning Policy Framework, which gives politicians the right to cut through swathes of ancient woodland if they consider it to be economically expedient.

Which means that our remaining trees have become even more precious, and vulnerable, and deserve urgent protection. We need to remember that woods have always formed an integral part of our landscape, nature, infrastructure and folklore. From the totem-like pine poles at Stonehenge to Tolkein’s Ents, they are our symbols of the sacred and magical; our place of refuge; our resources; and, perhaps most important of all, our bastions of biodiversity. What is very clear, however, is that we cannot assume that our woods will be preserved indefinitely unless we take action.

It is very welcome news, then, to hear that the Woodland Trust is leading a call to establish a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, with a view to building on that thirteenth century legacy. The Charter itself will be drafted in 2017; for now, the Trust is asking “people across the UK to reflect on the role of trees and woods in their lives, their history, and their culture. By sharing stories of real trees and real lives in communities we will build a national story of trees and woods – showing how important they are to people today and what role communities want them to play in our future.” 

When I look at a tree that’s lived for hundreds of years, surviving storms, frosts, and human intervention, it is a very visceral reminder of our history– English oaks gave us the gall ink which recorded the words of our nation’s authors and poets for hundreds of years; the willow gave us the cricket bat; our woods built our ships and our churches. Most importantly, though, when a piece of ancient woodland is destroyed we lose not only a link to that past, but also a vital piece of our natural world – because trees are, above all, habitats. At a time when climate change is already causing such damage, it’s crucial that we re-establish our connection with these parts of our countryside and articulate the things that are important to us. Taking part in the formation of this Charter seems like an excellent place to start – and we can start by adding our own stories to the Tree Charter website, explaining what trees mean to us:  https://treecharter.uk/

Scotland’s Native Woodland

One of the things James Rebanks touches on in The Shepherd’s Life is the sustainability of his type of farming. In contrast to other methods promoted in this country which are essentially dependent on scale, Rebanks’ focuses on preserving historic practices; only keeping as many sheep as the grassland can take; and ultimately, protecting the productivity of the area for future generations. As is made so abundantly clear, his entire system is built on sustainability and longevity – it’s working with the land, not taking from it.

I thought of George Monbiot frequently as I read The Shepherd’s Life, and wondered (with some trepidation) how a conversation between the two of them might play out. It is certainly very easy to see the value in what both of them are saying. Sheep farming is a much loved part of our national heritage; the animals may hail from Mesopotamia originally, but it feels like a very British undertaking. It is certainly also true that most of us have an artificially sanitized idea of what farming (and consequently food production) entails, but I don’t think many would dispute the importance rural economies have to our sense of national identity. The dry stone walls; the shepherds’ crooks; the chalk grassland and rolling hills dotted with grazing animals – they are quintessentially British scenes. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is probably the first song most of us learn to sign as children. Hundreds of thousands of us head to the countryside during public holidays to soak up that bucolic atmosphere. Which is, of course, in part why agri-environmental schemes have been established – to reward landowners who manage their land in such a way as to preserve its environmental, historic and cultural importance.

At the same time, and as George Monbiot argues, the scale of it has got to be better controlled. Huge swathes of our countryside are given over to sheep farming – the scale of which, arguably, causes critical soil erosion, the suppression of woodland and shrub growth (which exacerbates flooding), and the creation of something akin to a rural wasteland. As he put it so pithily in one article (link below), Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. A lot of us love the bowling greens, but it must of course be true that our landscape would look very different if its uses changed.

He also has plenty to say about highland deer. Such as, for instance, the fact that fifty per cent of the private land in Scotland is in the hands of 432 people – many of whom use it for grouse moors and deer stalking. As a result an artificially high number of Scottish deer is maintained, grazing the land to the roots. Again it defines the landscape, and has a considerable impact on Scottish wildlife.

A survey of Scotland’s native woodland has been undertaken over the course of the past seven years by a group comprised of the Forestry Commission Scotland, Scotland Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust Scotland, and Scottish Land & Estates, amongst others. They have found plenty to be concerned about, including the fact that more than half of Scotland’s native woods are in an unsatisfactory condition, and that since the 1970s, more than 14% of Scotland’s irreplaceable ancient woodland has been lost. This is a major issue – not only in terms of the environmental impact (thinking particularly of biodiversity; carbon sequestration; flood protection; and clean air) but also economically, considering the importance of the national timber industry, and of course, the fact that Scotland’s stunning landscape is one of its major draws for tourists.

What’s fascinating about all of this is that it is not development which is predominantly to blame for the loss of woodland, as one might expect. Instead, the group have identified that the main problems are failed regeneration, climate change and overgrazing. Indeed, 86% of Scottish woods suffer high or medium damage as a result of grazing by herbivores.

As a result of this study, recommendations have been passed to the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Strategy team, some of which appeared in the new Biodiversity Route Map to 2020. However, there still needs to be a commitment from the Government to embed these into official policy. The Woodland Trust is campaigning to ensure these recommendations are enshrined, and to ensure that six further, key actions are incorporated (including halting further loss, and the restoration of at least 15% of the degraded ancient woodland).

The Trust is asking anyone who lives in Scotland to get in touch with their MSP, to make sure that these recommendations are crystallised into policy. More information is available on their excellent website: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/

And for the non-Scots among us, the Woodland Trust would also love to hear what you think about how to prioritise responses to this study: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/tell-us-what-you-think

There are always going to be conflicts in the way in which we use our limited land resources; the best we can hope for, perhaps, is balance, and sense of communal responsibility. Which means that when we have an opportunity to make sure that governments actually implement positive change, we have to seize it.

Scotland

Articles referred to:

http://www.monbiot.com/2014/05/19/highland-spring/

http://www.monbiot.com/2013/05/30/sheepwrecked/

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/save-scotlands-woods/

People’s March: 28 and 29 November 2015

The climate change conversation has taken on almost cartoonish proportions this week. In the red corner, we have Volkswagen – the car manufacturing behemoth which has admitted to cheating on US emissions tests, thereby producing engines which, according to the BBC, emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. They have totally screwed up admitted their US boss, but that doesn’t come close to addressing the outrage which has greeted the “diesel dupe”. It now looks as though this may be an endemic issue internationally, that diesel fuel isn’t the good-news story it has been disingenuously offered up as, and that – perhaps unsurprisingly – big business has been fiddling the system in order to avoid awkward environmental regulations. As George Monbiot put it so excellently:

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

In the blue corner we have the Pope, who has just delivered an unusually political, wholly unambiguous message of support for environmentalists. In a speech given on the White House South Lawn, he talked about an environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature; he quoted Rev Martin Luther King; he told his audience this could no longer be left as a problem for future generations. It was inspiring, timely and brilliant. An allegedly corrupt multinational v. a Pope who has placed the environment very high on his agenda; it’s like a surreal spaghetti western out there – and it really isn’t difficult to pick a team.

This flurry of activity is happening just a few short weeks before the COP21 Paris climate change talks in early December. As Pope Francis intimated in his speech yesterday, we really cannot underestimate the importance of that Conference – it will set the green political agenda for the coming years, and determine how we respond en mass to an urgent global threat.

It will, of course, be the politicians sitting around the table in December, arguing over targets, actions, and global commitments. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our say. Whatever you think of the Conservative Party’s approach to environmentalism – which, for my money, languishes in the “woeful” category – we need to make sure that those delegates have the voices of their countrymen and women ringing in their ears when they make these decisions. They need to know how much we care, and that that they cannot fudge an outcome with something non-binding like the Copenhagen Accord. As Naomi Klein puts it in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything:

Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.

Climate change is already a crisis – now we need to demand that our politicians do something about it.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff on 28 November, and London and Belfast on 29 November, thousands of people will be turning out for the People’s March, to draw attention to the importance of achieving a strong international climate deal in anticipation of December’s Conference. The Woodland Trust will be there to march for woods and trees, along with the Climate Coalition. They are asking people to join them for what’s sure to be a brilliant day; let’s demonstrate how important this is, and prove that we will be holding our politicians accountable.

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Articles and blogs referred to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772

Smoke and Mirrors

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/march-with-us/

“The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono

Neil’s mum had a big birthday a few weeks ago, and asked people coming to her party not to bring gifts, but instead to bring a book that meant something to them. It was such a lovely idea, and now means that she has a small library from friends and family, with a bookplate in the front cover of each title explaining its importance to the giver. When we were looking through them all recently, Neil spotted a thin book called The Man Who Planted Trees, beautifully published by The Harvill Press, which he thought I might like. One look at the quote from Henry Miller on the back, the description of the story, and the wood engravings by Harry Brockway and I was determined to track down a copy for myself.

It is a gorgeous story of about 4,000 words, which takes no time at all to read. As a young man, the narrator tells us that he found himself stranded in a bare and monotonous region of France, desperate for food and water. The area is a wasteland; villages are largely deserted; angry charcoal burners are the only inhabitants; There are epidemics of suicide and many cases of madness, usually homicidal. He stumbles towards what he thinks is a tree only to discover that the figure is in fact a shepherd called Elzéard Bouffier, who offers him help. Elzéard doesn’t say a great deal but takes the narrator back to his perfectly appointed little house, where the wind in the tiles made a sound like the sea on the shore. During the course of the evening, the young man looks on as the shepherd carefully selects one hundred perfect acorns. The following day, the shepherd leaves his flock to graze and plants the acorns in the ground. The land is not his, he says, and he is not interested in the views of the people who may own it and who have abandoned it entirely. Instead, having lost his family and intent on enjoying a quiet life with his animals, it struck him that this part of the country was dying for a lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.

The young man is taken away from the region for the next five years, as the First World War engulfs Europe. When he finally returns, it is to see a carpet of oak trees covering the landscape, and a sea of birch plantations where the shepherd had fancied there would be water. We are told that this new life has kick-started a chain-reaction – water has returned to ancient brooks, and seeds have travelled on the wind, creating meadows, gardens, flowers, some reason for living. Gradually the authorities notice the new woodland, and assume it must be “natural”. Delegations are sent to inspect it, and forest wardens put in place. Happily, the narrator is able to ensure that bureaucracy does not interfere with the shepherd’s work, and the trees continue to flourish, inviting new life to the once-barren region.

What a timely story for anyone with an interest in our country’s woodland, and the threats to our countryside. What Jean Giono shows so beautifully with his simple parable is life’s connectivity; our reliance on inter-dependences we barely pay heed to; and the happiness to be found in a life spent outdoors. Whether intended or not there is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the wretched charcoal burners and the fossil fuel industry, and it is implied that the barrenness of the landscape at the beginning is the result of human over-exploitation and neglect. In Giono’s story a single man is able to remedy these ills – the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, is of course entirely fictional, yet since the story was first published people around the world have been desperate to track down the village he repaired and to tell his story. As Giono’s daughter says in the Afterword, for years readers assumed, or wanted to believe, that Bouffier was real.

It put me in mind of two things in particular. The first is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which I have just finished (and will be reviewing shortly!) Towards the end of his fascinating and very readable book, Diamond explains that global power essentially shifted from the Fertile Crescent (the cradle of modern civilisation) to Europe because, They [ the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies] committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base….Northern and western Europe has been spared this fate, not because its inhabitants have been wiser but because they have had the good luck to live in a more robust environment with higher rainfall, in which vegetation regrows quickly. To summarise that very crudely, if a society undermines its environment to the extent that agriculture become unsustainable, it is essentially guaranteeing the loss of its political importance. We may well live in a more robust climate, but that does not mean that soil erosion, the clearance of woodland and climate change will not eventually put us in a similar position. The parable of the tree-growing shepherd is compelling not just because of its charm, but because we want to believe in the fact that someone will have the grace and will-power bring us back from the brink and regenerate our wildlife when we need them to.

Secondly, and as I have mentioned before, the Woodland Trust is campaigning about this very issue at the moment with the help of its excellent video about the NPPF. Not only do we not have the benefit of an Elzéard Bouffier planting new forests, we are barely able to protect what we already have. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M In a gentle, poetic way, Giono help us to remember why that matters.

Henry Miller described this little story as the song of the world. It is certainly very beautiful, full of hope, and a welcome reminder of the way in which we ought to treat the world around us.

The man who planted trees