The best time to plant a tree

2 October 2018

The best time to plant a tree, the saying goes, was 30 years ago: the next best time is today.

An article by Eleanor Harris published in the Western Mail on 2 October 2018


The best time to plant a tree, the saying goes, was 30 years ago: the next best time is today.

If we’d planted 30 years ago, society would be benefiting from the stored carbon and air quality improvements, wildlife would be benefiting from the diversified habitat network, timber would be replacing polluting materials like plastic and fossil fuels, and we would be building ‘home-grown homes’ while new trees grew in a maturing forest landscape.

Yet for 30 years, painfully low woodland creation and removing productive woodland for development or landscape restoration means the amount of timber we grow is going down.

We can’t change the past, so the next best time to plant a tree is today. Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn is determined Wales will meet its annual target, 2000 hectares of new woodland (about 4 million trees), rising to 4000 hectares a year. This is essential to meeting Wales’ climate change targets and building a green modern economy.

Yet we aren’t planting trees today and unless something changes radically, we will not even plant a tree tomorrow. A proposal submitted in February 2017 for a 70-hectare mixed woodland in an upland Welsh valley, scored very highly on public benefit and was set to make a good income from timber for its owner. The Government process to approve the planting and provide grant support should have been completed in July, but took until December. The autumn planting season was missed, so the trees were planted in spring 2018. They didn’t have time to properly establish, so more than 50,000 trees died in the dry summer. The owner now faces a £50,000 bill, with no promise of government help.

We know what is needed: more funding for woodland creation, and a smoother process to approve planting.

Firstly, the funding. Planting a forest costs around £4000 a hectare. Whether the land is owned by a farmer, who would have to borrow capital, or an investor, competing with subsidised farming for land, support is needed to make woodland investment viable (akin to ‘payback periods’ in renewable energy investment). This is public investment; once established, the woodland will make a profit for the owner and need no further public support, and will return significant public benefit every year.

The budget required to achieve 2000 hectares in 2018-19 is around £8 million, £2 a tree, a drop in the ocean of rural funding. Yet spend on woodland creation is less than £2 million a year.

Secondly, the smoother process. Forestry must be planted to high standards and   woodland designed by a professional, experienced forester will meet these standards - but take just as many months to work through the regulatory checks, with a high risk that no permission to plant will be forthcoming.

There are straightforward ways to make the process slicker: a fast-track process for foresters with ‘earned recognition’ such as members of the Institute of Chartered Foresters; the identification of target forestry land where environmental risks have been assessed; better training for officers who manage approvals; and a clear timescale for stakeholder consultation.

We know that measures like these do work, because they have recently been implemented in Scotland, where the tree-planting target of 10,000 hectares is likely to be met this year.

A third barrier to tree-planting often cited is public opposition. It is said farmers dislike trees and local people object to forest proposals. Yet the 2017 Public Opinion of Forestry survey found 96 per cent of people believe the woodlands provide benefits for local communities.

There is overwhelming cross-party support in the Welsh Assembly for more trees. Farmers know this and want to understand from the forestry industry how they can plant trees. What farmers dislike is viable farms being closed down, but modern forestry provides an option to diversify, supplement farming income, and develop a secure future on the land.

Once the process and the funding for woodland creation is in place, the possibilities are endless for innovative investments such as community-owned forests, to give the people of Wales a greater stake in the forests of the future, and to enable everybody to ‘plant a tree today’. This can deliver home-grown homes, climate targets, rural jobs and investment.

The environment, rural, housing and economy ministers are all part of a Wales Decarbonisation Task and Finish Group. The task they need to finish is to get tree planting started. The ongoing consultations on decarbonisation and land use provide an opportunity to influence their thinking on these issues in which everyone can have a say.

To meet her planting target next year, Hannah Blythyn must secure the budget, and ensure Natural Resources Wales delivers the efficient process. It is a tall order, but achievable. Let’s work together to do it, so we can say in 10, 20 and 30 years' time: “We planted a tree today.”


* Eleanor Harris is Policy Researcher for Confor: promoting forestry and wood