I think I might be a Tree Hugger.
I have always appreciated the beauty of and adaptability of trees, whether this be an individual tree impressively showing its unique beauty in the open countryside or adding a warmth of texture to the architectural lines of an urban setting. Together trees make the copses and woodlands that characterise our British landscape, creating our ‘green and pleasant land’. 13% of Britain is covered in woodland, up from just 5% at the beginning of the last century when the Forestry Commission was established. Britain also has an exceptional number of ancient trees compared to the rest of Europe, these trees are a living history, wrapped up with mythology and traditions stretching back thousands of years. Trees provide a home for other forms of wildlife from lichens and fungi, to insects, birds and small mammals. They are also a valuable source of food for wildlife and humans alike, as well as timber having many uses; from being a fuel or an important raw material to build everything from ships and buildings, to fine furniture to the more mundane but essential: paper for toilet rolls.
As a young boy I can just about remember the grand knarled Elm trees around the farm, most of which succumbed to the devastating Dutch Elm Disease which just about wiped this species out. Luckily, a few Elms survived which are resistant to the disease, but this is now a rare sight. From the 1980s, farmers started to be encouraged by government policy to plant trees on their farms to replace the former trees that had been lost over the years from Dutch Elm disease and from those pulled out following the second World War, where government policy had encouraged farmers to grow more food ensuring Britain was never held hostage to food shortages again.
Over the years, my father and I have planted well over 8,000 trees on our farm. Father started this in 1987, establishing two small copses of native deciduous hardwoods and fruiting trees in awkward field corners. Now some thirty years later, these trees have added real beauty to the landscape, as well as providing habitat and food for wildlife. From autumn 1989, as soon as I left school, I planted my first trees on the farm and spent many subsequent winters with a spade and flask of tea planting trees and hedges around the farm. Over the years, these have needed weeding, tending and replacing ones that either died in summer droughts, or were eaten by Muntjac and hares. But now as they grow and mature, I find real pleasure in seeing them evolve, becoming part of the landscape.
When I first started planting trees and hedges on the farm, my motivation was to improve the visual character of the farm, by creating a network of small copses linked by hedgerows next to water courses or across fields. For example, I created a beetle bank across our largest field and planted it with a mixture of tree and hedge plants. This created a wildlife corridor from an old hedge at one end to a small copse at the other. Over the years it has provided habitat for Grey Partridge and other farmland birds, as well as small mammals and insects, including of course beetles. It is visible from a nearby bridleway, providing an interesting focal point on the horizon.
In addition to the visual and wildlife benefits, many of the trees we have planted such as English Oak, will in time be a source of quality timber, however this will be long after I have gone. But I have also planted a couple of areas of Poplar trees purely for their timber around twenty years ago. This is a quick growing hardwood which takes around twenty five years to mature. So these will soon be ready to cut down to make pallets or furniture frames, following which we will replant the areas with more trees in their place to start the cycle over again.
Since I started planting trees on our farm as a way of improving our own little part of the countryside, the appreciation of trees in the wider world to reduce flooding and soil erosion has become more apparent. However, the biggest change over the last decade has been the wider realisation of the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the sense of despair at the continued global deforestation, especially in the Amazon basin, often thought of as the planet’s lungs. Admittedly the 8,000 trees we have planted is not going to make up for vast tracts of lost rainforest, but every little bit genuinely helps.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide all their lives, but are most efficient during their teenage to middle age years. Therefore, the trees we planted between 1987 to around 2005 are currently doing a very good job for us. According to the Farm Carbon Toolkit every hectare of broadleaved deciduous trees will absorb around 4,761Kg of carbon dioxide per year. In addition, for every 1,000m of managed hedgerow, a further 1,175 Kg of CO2 is absorbed every year. On our farm we have doubled the area of woodland over the last thirty years to over 9 hectares and increased the length of hedgerows to over 14,000m, so our woodland and hedgerows are absorbing over 59 tonnes of CO2 every year.
(To learn more about how plants store CO2 in the soil, have a read of our blog post about why we no longer plough our fields.)
To put this into perspective, an average family car such as our ‘Mellow Yellow Mini’ produces around 117g of CO2 for every kilometre driven, therefore our trees and hedges are removing enough CO2 out of the atmosphere every year to offset over half a million kilometres of driving, which is enough to remove over 40 ‘Mellow Yellow Minis’ off UK roads each year (for the average car use of 11,900 km per year).
With all these great benefits that trees bring to our lives and the world around us, we are certainly going to continue planting trees on our farm. Starting this February, working with the Woodland Trust, we are going to plant up a small area next to a pond with 100 trees, that until recently had scrub and dead elms. This time though, rather than doing all the work ourselves, we are going to invite local people to help us. We will provide the young trees and in return for everyone’s hard work, we will lay on some refreshments to create a real good community spirit. If you would like to join us and plant a tree on Bottom Farm on Sunday 16th February, register for your ticket here.
So yes, I am definitely a Tree Hugger and proud to be called one! Any other prospective tree huggers out there, feel free to sign up to come along in February and plant your very own bit of history in the English countryside.