Those of us who love trees should perhaps be celebrating the plans to plant 50 million of them in a new Northern Forest and welcoming the Agriculture Bill’s encouragement of greater tree cover.
Before any of us gets too carried away with enthusiasm, it is worth remembering that it is relatively easy to plant young saplings but very hard to get rid of established trees. What we do now is going to have an impact for decades to come and it is important that we get it right.
When it comes to planting trees quality matters rather more than quantity. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of those who left us with a legacy of densely packed stands of Douglas Fir. Modern planners favour much more natural mixes of woodland species like ash and hawthorn. There is every reason to believe that if these are planted then they will look good and hold more moisture in our highlands. That deserves subsidising by tax payers because it will cut down on flooding and it will also help to store some of the surplus CO2 that is warming up the atmosphere.
Will that be enough to have future generations look back on our efforts and admire how far sighted we were as we begin the transition back to a more wooded landscape for Yorkshire? Even if we hand down to our descendants the most beautiful of newly re-wooded landscapes, I suspect they might want to ask us what it produces that they can eat. There is something wrong about creating an upland playground and wildlife reserve in significant areas of Yorkshire and then flying in food that has been grown on plantations where there was once rainforest.
It is important to get the balance right between protecting the environment and farming the land. We need to find ways to both produce healthy food locally and look after our local wildlife. We need to get farmers and environmentalists working together to design approaches that produce both biodiversity and food. Payments for carbon capture, upland water retention and recreational uses of land need to be balanced by subsidies that enable upland farming to survive and prosper.
The Department for the Environment needs to identify the gains it wants to subsidise on behalf of the public and then use the creativity and knowledge of farmers to work out how best to achieve those gains. It is better to pay a farmer for a measurable increase in biodiversity than to dictate how to achieve this.
What we shouldn’t be doing is using subsidies to encourage farmers to stop producing food and then allowing imports of industrially produced cheap meat to come in from countries that soak their battery farmed cattle and pigs in chemicals.
We need a serious debate between environmentalists, farmers and consumers about what we want to eat, how and where we want it produced and what the consequences of our choices are for the future before we plant too many of those new trees.
Councillor Andrew Brown (Green Party)
First published in the Yorkshire Post