Planting trees to enhance the living land as a carbon sink.
I started writing this in May 2020 – the lockdown created a sudden change of pace to life that left me hoping, like many, that the COVID-19 pandemic might become a catalyst for taking meaningful climate action in an informed way; after all, this has been a year where collective health and well-being has come before economic wealth, at least for a while. While emerging from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to reshape the way we live, to use the accumulated empirical knowledge we have to help balance our impact on the earth, and to help preserve and enhance the earth’s resources.
According to leaders at the UN, WHO, and WFF International, it is believed that pandemics are the direct result of human destruction of nature. Devastation of forests and wild places, illegal wildlife trade, destructive farming techniques, and unsustainable diets are all behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans. Unthinking, we will eradicate ourselves. Thinking, we must protect what we still have and reverse this destruction by massively reducing our emissions and helping to revive the flora and fauna of our planet – a message powerfully emphasised in David Attenborough’s latest BBC mini-documentary, Extinction: The Facts.
In the scope of this post, I want to concentrate on the impact that can be made by planting trees and regenerating woodlands. I want to share our initial research into this, the value of it, what we intend to do as a family, and how it can inform our conversations with each other, our friends, and beyond.
Why Tree Planting?
Forests are amazing things: they harbour a huge range of life, prevent flooding, enrich and protect soil, ameliorate drought, help stabilise weather, and have enormous carbon storage and sequestration capacity.
Density and native species are important considerations to bear in mind when planting trees, and what’s appropriate tree planting will change according to the context of location and with respect to existing important landscape features, such as naturalised meadows, peatlands, rivers, and streams.
One extreme form of tree planting I have come across in my research is ‘Tiny Forests’, or ‘Miyawaki forests’. These are intense forests of 600 fast-growing trees and shrubs planted in a tennis court-sized area (62,500 trees/hectare). This is a 30 times higher density than a conventional forest (2,000-2,500 trees/hectare), resulting in 300% more Co2 absorption, estimated at 450-600kg Co2 annual uptake over 4 years (that’s 1,800-2,400kg/m2), compared to a more conventional 130-140kg Co2 in 4 years. The approach is to provide a greater diversity of at least 30 species through layering shrubs, shrub-tree, tree, and canopy – a methodology that replicates the layers of a mature natural forest.
Photo via RepublicWorld.com
These forests have been planted on a large scale in Japan, India, and in Europe; the Netherlands has been developing similar projects on a national scale, as have France and Belgium. This is a hard-core approach to re-foresting, healing contaminated soil areas and relieving flood-prone areas (30m3 of water can be processed during a rain event). The first UK tiny forest was planted by Earthwatch Europe in partnership with Witney Town Council this year, with Oxford Council looking like their next UK partnership. If you’re interested in starting your own local ‘Tiny Forest’ project, you can find more information here.
This intensity of planting seems best suited to brownfield, urban, polluted (noise and air) and/or flood-prone areas. I could imagine many car parks, industrial wastelands, and under-used sterile public spaces being transformed into tiny forests. Imagine the juxtaposition of urban building and forest blocks together, creating a new form of eco-urbanism - a sort of urban re-wilding. This intense version of tree planting is worth exploring with partnering local communities, councillors, and politicians. It could transform the way we think about cities and urban life as well as industrial areas.
On Our Doorsteps
On a smaller scale, on our doorsteps, in our streets, tree planting makes a huge difference to the character, feel, and environment of town and city living. It is difficult to agree on the infrastructural changes with councils (and highways) to plant urban streets and squares, but we should be demanding it. I think of how the old squares of Bath are populated by majestic trees the same age as the buildings and how magical they are - creating a powerful sense of place and time - how sterile those places would be without them.
Setting Our Family Goal
With this in mind, we have been trying to work out what kind of goal to set ourselves as a family, on the most local of scales, in terms of a bare minimum of trees to plant each year.
The committee on climate change (CCC) recommended in 2019 that 50,000 hectares of woodland needs to be planted annually in the UK until 2050. The government’s achievement was disappointingly well below this in the first year, at only 13,400 hectares (11,200 of which were planted in Scotland).
50,000 hectares of woodland, what does that mean exactly? At a conventional spacing of 2 meters - 2,500 trees/hectare, this would be 125 million trees to be planted annually for the next 30 years. So that is about 2 trees per person in the UK each year that needs to be planted, or 60 trees/person by 2050…That is a minimum! For our family of 6, that’s 360 trees.
As a family, we are lucky enough to own a paddock of 0.5 hectares. We proposed this winter (planting season is November - March) to immediately plant our family’s whole contribution of 360 trees, towards the 2050 target of 60 trees for each member of our family. We are planning to plant one-third of our paddock with a combination of density and specimen trees, and have now started this process.
Our paddock ready for planting
The Woodland Trust supply tree packs for landowners at subsidised rates. We have bought so far a Pollinator Tree Pack of 210 saplings ( Blackthorn (30), Crab Apple (30), Dog Rose (15), Hazel (30), Goat Willow (30), Hawthorn( 45) and Rowan (30) ), a Tree Replacement Pack of 45 saplings ( Silver Birch (15), English Oak ( 15), Wild Cherry (15) ), and 4 Juniper saplings. These are all species found in our local woodlands – although the Juniper is slightly less common. We also intend to plant 15 further fruit trees as a small orchard. The remaining 86 trees will be added through transplanting existing saplings, cuttings, and further new specimen trees.
While planning this project, we received some great advice from a landscape architect friend of ours, who urged us to think conceptually and holistically about the gradation from woodland, to the woodland edge, to wildflower meadow, to low meadow and wetland. We are fortunate to live in a small, sloping valley with streams and a big pond at the bottom of our paddock- so there is an opportunity for exploration of different types of landscape, and potential for more diverse wildlife.
Horizontal Ecological Structures of a British Woodland
However is the CCC target enough?
According to Science Focus humans breathe 9.5 tonnes of air a year. Oxygen makes up 23% of this air, by mass. We extract about 1/3 of oxygen from the air with each breath, which is about 740kg oxygen per year, which is about 7-8 trees worth. That puts things into a new perspective about our co-existence with trees.
Therefore, we will also be seeking additional land for planting at least 7-8 trees for each of the six members in our family every year. Up to 2050 that would be 1,350 trees, requiring another 1.1 hectares.
Planning our initial tree-planting project in our paddock has taken some time, and we have now developed and drawn out ideas on how to achieve a planting approach that suits our diverse landscape. I aim to publish these plans in the next blog post, along with an update on our progress with the first tree planting push in November!