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The Case for Planting Trees

October 16, 2019

So many possibilities to choose from as a subject for my first new blog post since May, now that I’m free of book-writing duties… Maybe a report from my time last week at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London (and at the City of London Magistrate’s Court watching my dear wife being committed for trial)? Or the ongoing, pointless debacle of Brexit and its oh-so-predictable descent into constitutional crisis and incipient authoritarianism. But that’s all quite raw and I need something gentler to ease my way back into the blogosphere, so I think I’ll talk instead about trees – and in particular about the case for planting them vis-à-vis allowing natural woodland generation, as discussed by George Monbiot in a recent article.

I’ve made something of a habit in recent years of writing blog posts criticizing various positions of George’s so let me begin by stating once again that this isn’t because I think his writing is especially wrongheaded but on the contrary because he’s virtually the only mainstream journalist in the UK who consistently focuses on issues that really matter with a depth that merits critical discussion. And in fact there’s not much that I disagree with in his article. But I’d like to elaborate on a few points.

In his article, George decries

“conservation woodlands” that look nothing like ecological restoration and everything like commercial forestry: the ground blasted with glyphosate (a herbicide that kills everything), trees planted in straight rows, in plastic tree guards attached with cable ties to treated posts. It looks hideous, it takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest and, in remote parts of the nation, it is often the primary cause of plastic litter.

He argues instead for natural regeneration of woodland, and suggests that government woodland grants should be devoted primarily to funding it rather than to tree-planting initiatives. In this, he’s on message with a strong current of thinking in the permaculture world – don’t plant, regenerate!

Now, if I was an environmentally-minded person in possession of a parcel of land and with no other particular objectives for it I’d probably go along with the natural generation advice. But I’d like to raise a couple of broad issues that complicate things.

First up, having planted seven acres of woodland myself fifteen years ago I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be quite as awful as George suggests. Here, for example, is a photo of part of our plantation taken about ten years ago in George’s ‘looks hideous’ phase, plastic tree guards and all, looking down upon a part of our establishing market garden.

And here’s a photo taken from the same viewpoint two weeks ago.

Bearing in mind that most of the trees in the picture are notoriously slow-growing hornbeams, I’d suggest that our plantation isn’t doing too badly in ‘resembling’ a natural forest, and maybe ‘a decade’ rather than ‘decades’ is a more accurate timeframe to hold in mind for the process.

I removed the plastic tree guards visible in the first picture, reused some of them for other plantings, gave some of them to other people, got some of them back and reused them again, then finally put most of them in a skip a couple of years ago. They definitely come with an environmental price tag, but there are ways of reducing it. And they do a job which still has to be done with natural regeneration. Yes, brambles and blackthorn may protect establishing trees from deer, rabbits, voles, sheep and suchlike – but not always very effectively or quickly.

Here’s a shot of our woodshed from a couple of weeks ago, with a fraction of the thinnings I’ve cut from our plantation getting readied for use. We’re now producing winter heating and hot water for two buildings from our plantation, with enough left over for some modest income from firewood. Meanwhile, we’re getting numerous other benefits from the woodland – not least in terms of wildlife. The trees and the herbaceous layer beneath them have become a favoured haunt for numerous birds, insects, mammals and even reptiles in marked contrast to the arable field you can see at the bottom right of the aerial shot of our farm heading this website.

Therefore, to anyone who’s contemplating planting trees on a piece of land because they have specific goals for it, as we did – wind protection, privacy, nitrogen fixation, firewood and timber, amenity value, fruit and nuts, even wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration at a stretch – I say don’t be put off by the permaculture purists who insist on natural regeneration. Go for it.

Another aspect of permaculture purism concerning trees is the notion that they’re a low value land use best avoided on decent agricultural land and relegated to the furthest reaches of one’s property or, at landscape scale, to far off wastelands. It’s interesting in the light of that to look at Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s The Isolated State (1826), which was based on a careful geographical analysis of the costs and benefits of zoning different crops in a substantially pre fossil-fuel agrarian economy where land transport costs were high, and so were urban demands for firewood and construction timber. In that context, von Thünen placed the woodland zone serving his hypothetical settlement close to it, second only to gardens and dairies, while placing production of grain and meat further out from the settlement. Having basically hand logged a proportion of my timber and hand harvested my grain over the years I can attest to his wisdom. Another case for ignoring received wisdom: put the woodland close to home.

A final and rather unhappy thought on the case for tree planting. Where I live the main pioneer tree that you see regenerating everywhere is ash, which is currently being hammered by ash dieback disease with mortalities reportedly between 70 and 90%. More generally, the trajectory of climate change is such that trees regenerating now may not prosper some years hence. Though I usually subscribe to the doctrine that ‘nature knows best’ when it comes to organizing wild biodiversity, human fiddling has now taken us into realms where there may be a case for a bit more forward planning (i.e. further fiddling) on our part. Don’t worry, I’m not turning full ecomodernist and claiming that we now need to bioengineer the entire world. But I do think there’s a case at the margin for some thoughtful human tree planting in service of present objectives with an eye on the future. It probably adds to the biodiversity…

Turning just briefly to the second broad issue, I also have some reservations over George’s enthusiasm for government grants to fund natural woodland generation. In fact, though I’m far from a free market ultra I have some reservations about government grants for most things because I think the potential for perverse incentives is high and they prompt questions about the market or social/policy failures that underlie the need for the grant-making. For his part, George has campaigned tirelessly and for the most part persuasively against the implicit grant of EU agricultural subsidies that reward landowners simply for owning land. Grants that reward landowners for simply owning land and allowing trees to grow on it strike me as only a small notch further up this scale, so his advocacy for it surprises me a little.

A further issue is monitoring and compliance. Under the old Woodland Grant Scheme the Forestry Commission took no interest in the plantings they funded after ten years – but at least they ensured that grant-holders had first gone to the trouble of establishing a viable plantation, and it’s unlikely that anyone who’d done that would uproot all their hard work a decade later. With natural generation, on the other hand, a decade of nature’s work can easily be undone in a few minutes with a flail mower. Who would monitor this? For how long? With what sanctions? And at what cost?

I’d prefer to go von Thünen’s way. An old saying has it that “the wood that pays is the wood that stays” – what we need to do is figure out how to start developing a woodland estate that ‘pays’ us by serving long-term human needs in an age of climate change and energy descent. These needs include wildlife and natural biodiversity but aren’t restricted to them. This seems to me preferable to spending precious public money now on paying landowners to let their land run wild for a few years before other priorities doubtless insinuate themselves. To do so, I’d place more emphasis on wider social change than on grant-making.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Agroforestry, managed woodlands, tree planting