We need to shift our focus from tree planting to tree care

This article by Greentalk co-founder, Paul Wood, originally appeared on the Green Alliance blog in November 2020.

In case you hadn’t noticed, trees are having a moment. And we expect them to have an even higher profile in the months ahead. 

Millions are being spent on tree planting initiatives, but far less cash and far fewer column inches are devoted to their aftercare.

I believe we’re facing a crisis, particularly in our towns and cities, where staggering numbers of newly planted trees don’t survive their first year or two after planting. The Sunday Times reports that up to 30% of new street trees don’t make it, and this summer, in Hackney, thousands of saplings died because they were badly planted and little aftercare was provided. 

It’s not just young, newly planted trees, our care for mature trees is wanting too. In Sheffield, protests by residents intent on the protection of thousands of mature trees due to be felled for very tenuous reasons made headlines across the world. Many of those trees were century old limes planted as memorials after the First World War, but for cost conscious contractors, they represented a liability. The expense of maintaining big trees (despite their valuable, and quantifiable contribution to making cities more liveable), was trumped by short term cost reductions achievable by replacing them with three metre saplings. Doncaster is facing similar problems today, while big, historic trees have been felled in places like Swansea and Birmingham in recent years.

Magic money tree

At the heart of many of these horror stories is cost. While we happily shell out millions to plant trees, we struggle to find the money for their long-term care, and, it seems, we have less regard for historic urban treescapes than we do for historic buildings. A headline of ‘millions to be invested to look after trees’ somehow doesn’t cut the mustard, but this is what we need. After all, the benefits trees offer only really start to apply when those trees are big and well established. But just maybe the tide is beginning to turn…

During Lockdown 1.0 many people noticed, as if for the first time, nature all around them. Townies appreciated parks, street trees and urban woodlands like never before, and for many the logical next step was to find out more. Some are even getting involved with grassroots organisations making a difference on the ground.

From tiny acorns…

Attitudes towards trees and the environment have shifted, and as politicians have realised, planting trees is often a vote winner, but how can the promise of a bosky future be secured?

Here are some suggestions.

We need to get communities involved – many people want to feel they are doing something to improve their environment. What better way than to ensure trees survive, and deliver on their promise for years to come.

In Lewisham, a local charity, Street Trees for Living might be a good model to follow. It raises money to plant trees, but crucially, empowers local residents to maintain them too. It has planted over 1000 trees in the last five years and has seen failure rates drop from 30% to just 5%.

Meanwhile in leafy Chiswick, another group, Abundance London are piloting a technology-driven scheme enabling motivated residents to become ‘Tree Champions’ who recruit and manage groups of volunteers who in turn adopt trees and build community. They even remind adopters to water their trees during particularly hot spells.

Elsewhere, Save Our Street Trees Northampton have campaigned for their council to provide better care of trees, including through the appointment of a specialist tree officer, a post that has been unfilled for at least seven years.

These groups, and many others involved in similar initiatives to care for trees up and down the country, can play a crucial role in responding to the climate crisis. Given tools and resources to replicate what they are achieving locally now, can help us achieve a more forested future for our towns and cities

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