1001 GMT December 14, 2019
“This whole area wants to be a wood,” said Edward Milbank, sweeping his arm across the former hill farm in Northumberland. Small saplings of birch have invaded the cleared ground, but many more trees are being pushed into the soil by hand, theguardian.com reported.
The bracken and rhododendron that had overrun the hillside took heavy machinery three months to rip out. “When you disturb the soil, it becomes a wood very quickly,” said Milbank.
“But the Forestry Commission forced us to put in Scots pine as well. The entire area could be birch without spending a penny, but you have to be seen to be doing something to justify the [planting grants].”
This former sheep and cattle farm, Doddington North, is being converted into England’s largest private new woodland in 30 years, with 680,000 trees being planted over the 350 hectares. Moving down the hill, Milbank points and says: “The reason we were able to raise the investment is that — sitka spruce.”
The commercial timber tree will occupy 40 percent of the land, with native broadleaf trees such as birch, alder, aspen and oak on about a third and the rest managed as open grassland. Milbank, whose company Pennine Forestry is running the project, hopes it will encourage more wildlife, such as the red squirrels that live in an adjoining wood, and the kestrels that already fly overhead searching for the shrews that dart between tussocks.
The UK needs 1.5 billion more trees, according to the government’s official climate change advisers, to suck up carbon dioxide and help restore wildlife. But the question of how they will be delivered — private or public, commercial or wild — remains open, despite the pioneering effort at Doddington North, which should be completed this winter.
James Trayte, who leads the team of planters, has done more than most. He reckons he has planted more than two million trees in his 12-year career. Out since dawn, he has planted about 2,000 so far today, plucking the two-year old sitka saplings from bags around his waist, then prodding them into the hole he makes with a deft twist of the planting spade.
“It was pure love at the start, getting paid to walk around on the hillsides, battling the weather.” After 12 winter seasons, the best time to plant trees, he is more blunt about the motivation. “It’s a brutal job and my elbow is going. What brings me back now is the money.”
Milbank said: “Most local people have been incredibly supportive of the project, but not everyone. They thought we were taking away good agricultural land to put in trees.” But, if the national tree target is to be met, he said: “There will have to be some land that comes out of agricultural production and goes into forestry.” Much of the timber — and the carbon it contains — gets locked up in new buildings, he points out.
All the saplings planted are UK grown, but global heating is already exerting an influence. “We take them from nurseries in the south of England, as that will be the climate we have here in the north in the future,” Milbank said. Very few plastic guards are used, though that has meant killing deer that would destroy the saplings and putting up fences. “It will be lovely to have deer back in here in 10 years”, when the trees are established, he says.
Milbank is clear that management is essential to create and maintain woodland, such as removing some trees to let light through the canopy, a task that large wild herbivores would have done in the past. He thinks rewilding 25 percent of the nation, as proposed by Rewilding Britain, is unrealistic: “I can’t see land just being left — we are too small an island, with 66 million people.”
Rebecca Wrigley, at Rewilding Britain, said: “We are not suggesting people are taken off the land across the country and that everything is fully rewilded. We’d like to see a mosaic, maximizing rewilding but also production where that is necessary. Rewilding has to work for people and nature, economy and ecology.”
But she thinks management is a forestry mindset and often not necessary: “Woodlands have been doing OK for millions of years without human management, though obviously you need fully functional ecosystems.”
The government is not far off track in delivering the 11 million trees over five years in England that it promised to fund in 2017: 3.6 million were planted in the last two seasons, about 2,300 hectares. But, overall, planting in England fell in 2019.