Putting down roots: how we can help grow Herts’ tree population

Being among trees has been shown to enhance well-being

Being among trees has been shown to enhance well-being - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The government has promised 11 million new trees in England over the next 25 years but needs your help. Liz Hamilton of the Campaign to Protect Rural England Herts branch explains how

The pleasure of planting a tree is perhaps only surpassed by watching it grow – a contribution to the environment for future generations to enjoy.

In January 2015 advisers to the government, the Natural Capital committee, recognising the contribution that trees and woods make to society, recommended that many more trees should be planted, especially close to urban areas. The government made a manifesto promise that 11 million trees would be planted in England over the next 25 years, a commitment reiterated in September by DEFRA, the department responsible for rural affairs.

England is one of the least-wooded countries in Europe, with just 10 per cent under woodland, much less than France which has 29 per cent. Only nine per cent of Hertfordshire is wooded, despite feeling quite leafy. Even before last year the government target was for 5,000 hectares of new woodland to be planted annually to achieve 12 per cent cover in England by 2060, but progress was falling short due to insufficient Grant Aid support.

These targets recognise the value of trees and woods for wildlife, in the landscape and for recreation. An estimated 417 million visits are made annually to wooded areas according to a survey published last year and experience of green space is known to enhance wellbeing – even by seeing greenery through a window. And of course trees provide essential timber supplies.

Trees and woods give us much more too. They trap rainfall and help it percolate into the soil, reducing rapid run-off which can cause flooding and soil erosion. This process also protects and filters water supplies. Photosynthesis, by which trees produce the carbohydrates they need to grow, takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, fixing carbon (a green house gas) into long-lived woody structures. Trees also provide shelter and shade.

Yet trees are in trouble. Old age, storms and disease all take their toll. Majestic elms were once prominent in the landscape, often depicted by painters such as Constable. Sadly between 1967 and 1990 Dutch elm disease wiped out most of Britain’s mature elms, an estimated 25 million trees. Today a new threat affects our ash trees, which could devastate this species. Meanwhile we continue to lose trees to development and road building.

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Eleven million trees sounds a lot, and the government has admitted that private investment in tree planting will be needed to achieve its targets. But consider this, there are between 15 and 16 million families in England, so if every family planted one tree – job done!

Don’t go rushing out with a spade just yet. Now is not a good time to plant trees, which is best done when they are dormant. Now is a good time to think about where trees could be planted, grouped together or individually, near to you. It’s also a great time to go out and take a good look at different trees you could plant, at their appearance and features and importantly, how big they get. You also need to think about protecting trees, especially from grazing animals such as deer and rabbits, and how to look after young trees.

A tree or two in your garden for fruit, flowers, attractive leaf colour or bark is a great start. Further afield, could you persuade a local landowner or public authority to make space for trees, perhaps in an awkward field corner, along a hedgerow or on the edge of a playing field? Remember that special care is needed when considering planting near to roads, water bodies, utility supplies and buildings as some tree roots can damage foundations and drains.

Species choice is important. Native species, ideally grown from local seed, are preferred in the open countryside, especially close to ancient woodland. Some have special affinities, such as whitebeam (Sorbus aria) which grows on shallow soils over chalk, alder (Alnus glutinosa) found in wet places, and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) which has a strong presence in Hertfordshire. In parks, gardens and urban spaces a wider choice of species would be appropriate.

For advice on choosing trees and how to plant, protect and maintain them, the Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust websites are packed with guidance and information about financial support. The Woodland Trust also has free trees to give away to schools and community groups. You could go along to a local tree planting event to find out how it’s done. At the trust’s Heartwood Forest near St Albans in November over 500 people planted nearly 6,000 trees. Keep an eye on the website for future events.

CPRE nationally is supporting a new initiative, a Charter for Trees, Woods and People, led by the Woodland Trust and supported by more than 35 organisations, aimed at placing trees at the centre of national decision making. To find out more about the charter and the place of trees and woods in our history or to share your own tree story, visit treecharter.uk