With the UK’s new Agricultural Bill being published in the New Year, the Woodland Trust is calling for Brexit to be used as an opportunity to make tree planting the key component of new land management policy. Ben Davis, who works for the Sustainable Lush Fund, reports on the need to put trees at the heart of any new policy.
Wildlife in the UK is facing a crisis, one that has been brewing for decades. Over 60% of the UK’s plant and animal species have declined over the last 50 years. Agricultural intensification had an effect on nearly half of these, which is unsurprising since 70% of the UK landmass is dedicated to farming.
The future role that agriculture could play in reversing the effects of deforestation in the UK was discussed earlier this month (December 2017) at the Woodland Trust’s yearly parliamentary event.
The reception saw a range of speakers, including Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, supporting arguments in favour of planting more trees and ideas about how this could be achieved.
The Environment Minister gave a brief speech reiterating the Government’s commitment to a Green Brexit and promised this would translate into the planting of 11 million more trees in its lifetime. To demonstrate how this would be achieved, he hinted at “the publication of our 25 Year Plan for the Environment in the New Year” promising it would include “more on how we intend to meet that ambition”.
Gove then spoke briefly about the new Woodland Carbon Fund that was established in November to provide £19 million worth of grants to landowners to plant more than 5000 hectares of additional trees across England.
After centuries of continued deforestation the total tree cover of the UK landmass stands at just 13%, far below the EU average of 37%. And at this event, the consensus within the room was that we must use the unique opportunity presented by Brexit to usher in a new era of farming with trees at its core.
But is the planting of 11 million more trees a realistic target?
Another of the speakers was the chairman of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee, Neil Parish, who urged the Government to be more ambitious and adopt the committee’s suggestion to aim for 15% tree cover rather than the 12% it has committed to.
He pointed out too that the current planting rate made even this lower target unattainable. Only 700 hectares of woodland were planted in 2016, far lower than the 5,000 hectares needed annually to hit the 12% target - meaning that even the Woodland Carbon Fund falls short from what is really needed.
Parish ended with a plea for more support for farmers and branded the Countryside Stewardship scheme as not fit for purpose. He said the current scheme - which provides funding for environmental activities to landowners and farmers - is both overly complicated and ineffective. He urged that the new Agricultural Bill would have to address these faults and ensure that there is an effective system in place to support farmers and protect the UK’s natural environment.
On a more positive note, the chief executive of the Woodland trust, Beccy Speight announced that never before, in the 45 year year history of the organisation, have there been so many voices “speaking up for woods and trees and all that they can deliver for people and for nature”.
Speight went on to praise EFRA’s recent recommendations that the Government should be aiming to increase tree coverage in England from 10% to 15% by 2060. But she said this could only be achieved via an Integrated Land Use Policy that supports the delivery of all the public benefits that trees provide and argued that we will need a national movement to raise the importance of Ancient Woodlands to the same level as protected buildings.
Time for a new narrative about the countryside?
Trees are incredibly beneficial, they provide clean air and water, improve public health, drawdown carbon, alleviate flood risk and stabilise soil. In monetary terms this equates to £270bn worth of benefits from UK woodlands. However in the last 10 years we have lost over 100 irreplaceable ancient woodlands and a further 500 are under threat. This decline has had a significant impact on wildlife across the UK.
Agricultural ecosystems are facing dramatic decreases in biodiversity and abundance. Over 52% of farmland species have declined and 12% of which are threatened with extinction.
The leading cause of this has been intensive farming practices, which include deep ploughing, rapid crop-rotations and the removal of trees and hedgerows to create larger fields. As a result of this decline in habitat, the humble hedgehog, for example, has seen populations plummet from 36million in 1950 to less than a million today.
More than 100,000 miles of valuable hedgerows have disappeared, resulting in the loss of an important landscape feature that not only provides habitat but also acts as a corridor for wildlife. Furthermore the removal of trees has led to 84% of fertile topsoil being lost to wind and rain erosion, limiting the number of harvests that are left in our fields.
It is clear that more of the same is not sustainable, therefore it is essential that the new Agricultural Bill addresses these problems with tree planting playing a big role in doing so.
The Woodland Trust’s parliamentary event provided the opportunity for a refreshing discussion on the future of farming in the UK. By going beyond the simple narrative of increasing production and fostering better competition, the event highlighted the vital need for the new Agricultural Bill to place trees and the environment itself at its very core.
It is fair to say that the new Bill is eagerly anticipated as it will be a glimpse into the future of our countryside.
Ben Davis studied an MRes in Politics at the University of Exeter, choosing to focus his studies on agricultural politics. Ultimately he went on to write his dissertation about the impact of Brexit on the farming industry and how adopting agroecological methods can help alleviate the problems being faced. He currently works for the Sustainable Lush Fund, providing assistance to the buying team to ensure that the best farming practices are supported.