Why are more trees not being planted to tackle climate change?
Planting trees has been identified as one of the simplest ways to capture carbon and slow climate change – so why are East Anglian farmers and landowners not doing more of it? CHRIS HILL reports.
The important role which forests and woodland can play in the battle against climate change has become a topic of global debate.
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that deforestation was among the key drivers of greenhouse gas increases.
And that followed a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last month which said only 14,400 hectares of trees were planted last year - less than half the 30,000 hectares needed every year to meet the government's carbon reduction targets.
So why, despite the raft of grant schemes and government incentives available, are more trees not being planted?
Mike Edwards, business manager at Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) said political uncertainty could be one reason, as farmers wait to see how Brexit affects the value of their land and the level of financial support available for green projects after the current EU system of "basic payment" subsidies is replaced by the proposed new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
"I think this is to do with the future uncertainties brought about by Brexit and the changes in agricultural policy," he said. "With the tapering off of basic payments we may see a change in land values and a better case for woodland planting in the future on marginal land.
"There may also be an expectation that the new ELMS scheme with its mantra of 'public money for public goods' might bring with it greater financial incentives for new woodland planting, although this is far from certain.
"My advice would be that there are a wide range of grants available now for woodland creation, we do not know what the future holds, and if you have land that you are considering for woodland creation, you should explore the current available grants now.
"The benefits of woodland planting has never been so clear and in the minds of the general public carbon capture, cooling, shade and shelter, minimising run-off from fields, reducing the impact of flooding and the benefits for physical health and mental wellbeing."
Mr Edwards said several EU-funded grants for woodland creation, management and improvement are available through the government's current Countryside Stewardship scheme, or via the Forestry Commission.
CASE STUDY: LONG'S WOOD
One example of public funding creating a valuable woodland asset is at the 70-acre Long's Wood in Wreningham, near Wymondham.
It was established in 1994 by Dennis and Pauline Long, whose family had farmed the land for more than a century. After taking advantage of European set-aside funding to convert the intensive arable fields into grassland, the next step was to plant woodland with support from the Forestry Commission and Norfolk County Council.
Now, 25 years later, it has more than 20 species of native trees, including oak, hornbeam, maple and ash, embellished by natural hedgerows, woodland flowers and ponds which have attracted wildlife including turtle doves, great crested newts and a plethora of butterflies and bees.
Vic Long, who now manages his late father's legacy alongside his sister Rachael, said the "money has just about run out" but the woodland is financially self-sufficient, with its trimmings supplying domestic firewood to houses on the estate - and it had the potential to generate more income in the future.
"We are definitely proud of it," he said. "It was done because there was European money to encourage it and manage it, and for most farmers that has to be the significant thing.
"All throughout history farming, like any business, has changed with a lot of forces pushing it in different directions. But without a clearer picture on what is going to happen next it is difficult to know how it is going to proceed.
"As it stands at the moment, it would need more imagination to take it forward. It would need weddings and events and because we have both got other careers we don't have the time or the need to do it - but if we weren't doing other things, the potential is there."
Mr Long flies business jets for SaxonAir from Norwich Airport - and he said both he and the company are keen to offset their carbon footprint with environmental projects on the ground.
Meanwhile his sister Rachael is a sculptor whose work in recycled and forged steel includes the striking horse standing in Wells harbour.
She said the "public access" aspect of the woodland - funded for 15 years, but continued by the family - had also made it a valuable resource for dog-walkers and horse-riders, as well as conservationists and school groups.
"The biodiversity is fantastic, but it is also becoming this amazing facility," she said. "We have already hosted a wedding and people are starting to have events here. The kids come from the school, and the wildlife trust has come and done surveys.
"When we had all the parish plans around Norfolk a huge population of people living in Wreningham credited our wood as one of the reasons for living here.
"People thought dad was crazy planting that much arable land for trees, but now we see he was quite far-sighted."
FORESTRY COMMISSION ADVICE
The Forestry Commission says woodlands are crucial environmental tools, not only as a carbon sink, but as a way to manage flood risk, reduce pollutant levels, conserve topsoil, and create diverse habitats.
But they can also bring potential commercial income, with timber prices currently at a long term high.
A Forestry Commission spokesperson said: "We all need to play our part in delivering the government's 'net-zero' emissions target and to combat the climate emergency.
"It is crucial that landowners continue to plant more woodland across the country and we encourage them to apply for the generous grants that help to address the threat posed by climate change."
The Countryside Stewardship Woodland Creation Grant pays an upfront amount of up to £6,800 per hectare of trees and is open for applications all year round.
The Forestry Commission says the government has guaranteed that any agreements where funding has been agreed before the end of 2020 will be funded for their full lifetime.
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