How do we get more trees planted?

The past is a foreign country: we might imagine that medieval kings were primarily concerned with affairs of state such as wars, hunting or other courtly pursuits, but firewood supplies? Yet in 1458 James II of Scotland’s parliament passed a law encouraging landowners to get their tenants to plant trees and broom. Presumably the law was not very effective, because in 1535 a somewhat stronger version was promulgated, and again in 1607 and 16611. Meanwhile evidence from historic documents and from studies of tree rings in old boats and buildings suggests that increasing amounts of timber were being imported into the east coast ports of Scotland from Baltic States and Scandinavia.

Move on a century or so, to the Scottish Enlightenment, and merchants, made wealthy by trade in tobacco, sugar, rum and slaves engaged in major new plantings2. This was partly no doubt for eventual profit – they were merchants after all; but a well-designed and managed estate, perhaps  with exotic trees such as Sitka spruce or Douglas fir, was seen as the mark of a gentleman as much as fine house. Fast forward to the twentieth century and state- afforestation on a massive scale was justified as a strategic reserve of timber against the risks of wartime shipping blockades3.

Now in the twenty-first century there are again government targets to increase woodland cover in England and Wales as well as Scotland, regularly repeated in different forest strategies, reports and policies4. To judge by recent rates of planting, they are about as effective as King James’s exhortations. We are still heavily reliant on imports of wood and wood-products and ,with our trading position about to change radically as Brexit becomes reality, we need policies for forestry that actually make a difference on the ground.

How do we persuade more landowners that creating new woods (not on species-rich habitats) is a sign of the new enlightenment; can we convince governments that a growing reserve of carbon in trees and woods is as critical for Britain’s future as the supply of mining timbers was in two world wars?

A critical failing has been the lack of continuity in forestry policy and support since the mid-1970s. There are risks with sticking with policy and practice if it seems to be not delivering the right things everywhere. However keeping with something that is half right may be better in the long-run than tinkering with regulations and funding every 5 years or so, if the result is that nothing much at all happens.

  1. Smout, T. C., Macdonald, A. R. & Watson, F. 2005. A history of the native woodlands of Scotland 1500-1920, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
  2. Trees and the Scottish Enlightenment.$FILE/fcms125.pdf
  3. Foot, D. 2010. Woods and people: putting forestry on the map, Stroud, The History Press.


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