What’s not to like about the great Northern Forest project - to plant 50 million trees over 25 years from Liverpool to Hull? The Woodland Trust is on board and the project is part of the governments 25 year environmental plan. Seems good?
Actually, there is a lot that is wrong - for our government it is just greenwash. Too little and way too slow. They have put £5.7 million into a project that will cost £500 million. For large scale planting schemes much of the money has to come from voluntary funding (MOREwoods and Sainsbury’s for example) and most of the projects rest on the good will of supportive landowners. Many of the projects are well worth doing but they aren’t forests - such as planting more trees in cities.
If the Northern Forest it is worth doing then 25 years is too slow and way too little. 25 years to increase the average tree cover by a few percent is pitiful. It is just another symptom of our governments failure to recognise the urgency of the climate emergency. We need to re-wild large parts of the UK now - and not just forests.
Forests are the poster child of re-wilding. Let’s not forget the frightening urgency to prevent tropical deforesting before we go down the path of putting the forests back. But it goes much further than that. In the UK as elsewhere, it is also about grasslands, heathlands, wetlands and woodlands. Our coasts and marine landscapes too. We don’t need the IPCC to show us our bare, dying landscape. We need to restore our natural world and we need to do it now.
If we are going to do this right, we have to look in the round. We have to ask the question: what environmental benefits are we trying to achieve and what is the best way to achieve it in a given location? What ecosystem functions are we seeking? If it is primarily about carbon it may well not be planting trees that is the best answer in all cases - it might be that supporting diverse grasslands is better. Grasslands can store far more carbon then temperate forests, but the carbon is stored in the soil, out of sight. In other cases we might be looking at the restoration of wetlands on grasslands – blocking up the culverts and allowing the fields to flood to restore wet meadows.
If it is about natural flood prevention and forest ecosystems, then we need to be far more radical than the Northern Forest project. As George Monbiot says:
Our bare hills are an artefact of three principal activities: sheep farming, deer stalking and grouse shooting. Sheep and deer selectively browse out tree seedlings, ensuring that existing forests cannot regenerate and trees cannot repopulate bare land.
These changes may be politically sensitive – there are vested interests, and many people who live and work in the countryside or along our shorelines will see radical changes. But, in the list of solutions for our climate catastrophe these changes are amongst the easiest to achieve. They are certainly the most urgent.
We don’t need to invent new technologies, we know what we have to do now. And, re-wilding will generate jobs and incomes in rural areas. In all probability we will need to provide fewer subsidies to rural communities in our restored landscapes as we replace destructive monocultures surviving on precarious subsidies given to small numbers of people with diverse and wildlife rich environments supporting communities.