Plans to accelerate tree planting and improve the management of existing trees and woodlands in England are underway following the consultation to inform a new England Tree Strategy. Here, forestry consultant David Taylor offers his own thoughts on the challenge facing government.

IT really comes as no surprise that the area planted in England is at such a derisory level. The first problem is available land, free from conflicting uses. Large-scale planting in England is only practicable where low land values can bring about a change of ownership from marginal agriculture to forests. This confines any notable expansion of the wooded area of England to our uplands. Sheep farming in the hills is excused from any useful or economic justification by the real (or is it perceived?) opposition to change. This is embodied in our National Parks, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors and the Lake District, plus Northumbria. And, of course, Exmoor and Dartmoor. For reasons that obscure logic, the mindset in the parks is to keep the hills naked as nature intended, which is a false ideal. Not so long ago, much of these bare hills were forest. Exclude grazing and forest – of a sort – returns of itself in a few decades.

Can our old forests be again? There are opportunities and barriers. Where land values are low, in the uplands, it was traditional to bring about a change of land use by a change of ownership. The Forestry Commission led the way, but in the latter part of the 20th century the private sector, appropriately incentivised by fiscal means, took over the expansionist mantle, and was only stopped by an ill-judged conservation lobby, which carried the banner of the desperate Flow Country in north Scotland. So instead of thousands of hectares of viable commercial valuable forests, we have four nesting pairs of redshanks. It is naive to think that the hen harrier, a bird common in mainland Europe, will not fulfil the same role south of the Border unless priorities change.

Then there are other interests involved. The first of these is water. Water catchment and flash flooding – especially in the industrial Pennines – is now somewhat belatedly being recognised as a growing problem. There is no doubt that forested catchments are less liable to flash flooding of a kind seen last winter in Yorkshire. The water companies own extensive areas of bare hills and precious little forest. Conservation I have also identified as a conflict when, if properly approached, it ought to be an ally. Agriculture can be discounted as serious opposition. But we must not forget common rights, which are extensive in the Pennines. So, although there are likely problems, none of them, given the right emphasis, can be seen as insurmountable.

The first way forward is to re-invigorate the state Forestry Commission. The role which it abandoned in the 1990s should be reinstated. Instead of giving the level of grants aid which is looming, why not let the state once again take the lead? Buy land, expand, work with the private sector as before? The financial record of the Commission in the last century shows what a good investment was made in all those hundred years of its existence. The Commission is uniquely placed to spearhead the desired expansion, using all its experience of multi-faceted forest management to enlist public support. It is only a few years ago that the public voted overwhelmingly to retain the Commission in public ownership. There is a wealth of goodwill for the Commission, which can be so easily tapped by a positive approach to the future.

It is climate change which originally united all political parties around the need to afforest. There are lessons to be learned from the history of the National Forest in lowland England. Here, involving the local community at an early stage turned indifference and lack of enthusiasm into pride and results.

So where do we go from here? The voluntary sector will always contribute a small area motivated by conservation, native species and recreation. But while a million trees sounds like a lot, it isn’t. To get 20 million trees planted will require either a targeted plan for the uplands or a radical, hugely expensive look at planting in the lowlands, or both. An ambitious planter, whether state of private, will need to precipitate a change of ownership. Buying land in the uplands should be realistic, because there is no real competition; not from agriculture, sport or recreation. So if we ignore the curious presumption against forestry which so clearly persists, and change attitudes, remove (not reduce) the tangle of red tape, extensive upland forestry is an attainable target.

Lowland planting is much less easily attained. As various interests will point out, planting even grade-three agricultural land will see the landowner take a serious loss in land value. This can only be countered by one factor: money. Grants for woodland planting must be at a level to compensate the landowner for loss of cash flow, and capital land value losses, or he/she simply isn’t going to play. There are some interesting ways forward, though. In Ireland, the state paid landowners a fixed, tax-free annual payment for the first 20 years of the plantation’s life. The farmer could then either plant (and get a further planting grant) or agree a lease with an outside investor which upped his/her income. At the end of 20 years, the landlord and tenant agreed to merge their interests to either become joint owners or sell to an outside party in the market.

In the aforementioned National Forest, landowners were invited to tender for just how much they wanted to be paid to fulfil a variety of objectives from public access to conservation to, of course, commercial forestry. This was so successful that it was acknowledged to be the factor which brought about the success of the whole scheme. DEFRA should now examine the history of the National Forest and consider if similar schemes – say in the Lancashire valleys – would do just as well. Work with the community, the water companies and the national park and conservation lobbies. You know it makes sense! But what doesn’t make sense is the very high level of subsidy which needs to be available for farmers to plant arable land. Such a policy can never be cost effective, unless the end of the CAP provides a much more radical look at land use and farm subsidies.

So, my advice is to look at what has worked in the past and what has failed. What indubitably worked were the fiscal incentives available to wealthy individuals which could be obtained until 1992. Tax relief on planting costs and capital taxation relief for woodland owners certainly succeeded. Why not consider re-introducing Schedule D, subject to certain controls and environmental requirements? Could big multinationals which are currently avoiding UK tax be given a refuge in planting trees? Isn’t it better to plant the hills and valleys around Alston than to hide in the less penetrable foliage of tax shelters in Barbados?

There is unlikely to be a universal panacea. Working with partners in a specific area is surely the best approach. But don’t forget, done positively and imaginatively, tree planting has a unique and huge potential for community and national benefit.

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