Everyone is suddenly talking about tree planting. To make the UK carbon neutral by 2050 the Conservatives want to plant 30 million trees a year (10% of the UK’s landmass is currently covered by trees against a national target of 17%); the Lib Dems have pledged to plant 60 million. Better tree cover, particularly on upland areas, would reduce the threat of river flooding in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. More trees would help to reduce air pollution in our crowded cities and bring beauty to our streets…
This demand for more trees gives our generation a chance to restore Britain’s depleted rural and urban landscapes; it also creates precious opportunities for communities across our divided, grumbling but wonderful country to come together.
I have been planting trees and hedgerows for five years now, and it gives me so much pleasure that by mid-summer I find myself beginning to look forward to cold winter days spent outside armed with a spade, a sack of tree whips and the company of friends and neighbours.
I started out in 2014 as a guerrilla planter, stealing out with my neighbour on bleak afternoons to plant oak and field maple whips on spare, unproductive ground around our windswept village in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey. Next, we eyed up two approach roads into the village; these ran in parallel, about half a mile apart and lamentably bare, between open fields. Scraps of hawthorn showed where hedges had once run either side of both roads, but these had been grubbed up when the elms died in the 1970s and 80s. This emptied landscape will be familiar to millions living across the British countryside. My neighbour and I gazed out at these two roads and we imagined restoring the hedges and planting some trees, and thus in a few years bringing colour, depth and new obstruction to our view, laying-down a wildlife corridor and over the years sequestering hundreds, maybe thousands of tonnes of carbon.
So, in the summer of 2015 we contacted the Woodland Trust, and asked for help. The Trust agreed to supply us with trees and hedging plants at cost price if we could get the landowner’s approval. The landowner agreed to buy them if we could find volunteers willing to plant them to a good standard. We recruited over 25 villagers and between December 2015 and March 2016 together planted over 2km (1.2 miles) of hedging.
We had stumbled upon the magic formula for community planting: a willing landowner (free land) plus willing planters (free labour) plus a sponsor (free trees, guards and stakes) creates a win-win situation and enables a community to get large numbers of trees and hedges into the ground quickly, and have a lot of fun together in the process. Those who planted in 2015/16 still smile at the memory of working together through the wind, rain, snow and sunshine. They remember the gossip and banter, and the gratitude they felt to others who turned up with hot sausages and flasks of coffee and tea. At the end of our first day’s planting the community gathered in our village hall for a party. Feasting, toasts and old stories followed. And the next morning we brought our hangovers to the roadside, picked up our spades and resumed planting. Four years later our community takes daily pleasure from seeing these hedges and trees thrive, as do those who drive, ride or cycle past them. The same men and women who planted them now help maintain them. And where there was once only wind-blown ditches and grass verge, the landowner now has five-foot-tall hedges.
The extraordinary political events we have experienced since 2016 has left this country feeling polarised and fractious, but it is an uncomplicated truth that leavers and remainers, conservatives and corbynistas share a love of the places they have chosen to call home. By planting in a landscape that we don’t own but which we inhabit, a community demonstrates its affection for a place and makes an investment in its future. By allowing community planting to take place, a landowner doesn’t just benefit from the shade and windbreaks and biodiversity which trees and hedges provide; by giving a community an opportunity to improve their environment a landowner allows his or her neighbours to express their sense of belonging. Flourishing environments and stronger communities are unquestionably “public goods”, which is why in June this year Michael Gove, then DEFRA’s Secretary of State, asked civil servants to study our community-landowner model as they develop plans for a new subsidy regime for UK landowners.
Since 2016 our community has planted another 2.5 km of hedging in and around our village, and hundreds more standard trees (oaks, hornbeams and maples that will one day grow to define our landscape). This year we have given the project a name, Plant for our Lives, and will plant another 5km of hedgerow (that’s 25,000 hedging plants, mainly hawthorn, hazel, crab apple and dog rose) and 500 standard trees in and around 8 villages. In each village one or two residents have volunteered to recruit local planters and work with local landowners to identify suitable places to plant. And the Woodland Trust is completing this virtuous circle by providing each group with trees, stakes and protection free of charge. We are targeting footpaths and bridleways – cherished connections between communities, between a village and a favourite pub, or routes popular with dog walkers. By restoring trees and hedges to these paths the community will enhance their experience of using them, and the landowner knows that users are more likely to stick to them. And once again, those who planted them will help maintain them. Another win-win-win.
Next year we hope to launch an online platform which will provide anyone who wants to plant trees and hedges in their community with a step-by-step guide to setting up a local group, partnering with a landowner and applying for free trees, stakes and guards. We believe the Plant for our Lives model could be used by every community in the UK, whether it’s in the middle of a city or on the edge of a town. All you need is a willing landowner, willing planters and a free source of trees.
In the meantime, there’s still time to get busy this coming planting season. It runs from early December until the beginning March, when the short winter days are cold and wet, and the bare-root whips are dormant. Don’t waste these dark months – get your hands on some whips from a local nursery and use the time to plant trees in the ground; they are like ticking bombs and come springtime they will explode into green growth and good things will follow.
Alex Hickman tweets at @ajehickman
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