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From little acorns: time to plant more trees

Friday 23 May 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard urges more farmers, landowners and even gardeners to take advantage of generous grants for tree planting

A FEW years ago, there stood at the bottom of my Dales garden three elm trees which, at a guess, had been planted some 80 to 90 years previously. How lovely, you might say. In fact, they were a cause of great worry and sadness.

For a start, they had been planted far too close together, probably by the new owners of my half of the building, which had been split into two separate residences. This meant that they were tall and spindly and, even though outwardly healthy, always in danger of being blown down - and onto the house - in a serious gale.

Their roots were intermingled like spaghetti and had already broken the back of the drystone wall which divided the garden from the water meadow beyond, which meant the sheep regularly came into the garden and feasted on what few bits and pieces we could grow amongst their roots and in the shade they cast.

So it came almost as a relief when they all three contracted Dutch elm disease and I was able to write to the parish council, which quite properly took a great interest in such matters, saying that I was forced to have them felled in the interests of public safety.

Now I have planted many saplings over the years, in lots of different places, but - almost 20 years later - I cannot get over the guilt of ordering the death of those three mature elms. The fact that they were dying anyway is of little consolation.

So it was with interest that I read this week that the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) was advising farmers and even gardeners with a fair swathe of open land to take advantage of Forestry Commission grants which run out at the end of this month (see News, May 20).

These grants can cover virtually 100% of the cost of new forestry projects and certain types of fast growing woodland can become cash crops within a decade or so - an asset of real commercial interest for a farmer with a long-term view of his land.

However, short-termism is one of the curses of modern Britain and landowners are far from the worst culprits - the banks, business and the city of London take that prize. But it is probably down to ordinary country folk to help restore one of the key elements of England's green and pleasant land.

Britain was once more than 90% forest but we have been clearing trees for thousands of years, first for farming, then shipbuilding and charcoal burning, and in the past 200 years to make way for towns, roads, canals and railways.

Huge swathes of woodland were cleared in 1914-18 just to provide timber to hold up the trenches on the Western Front. When that supply began to run out, the Government panicked and created the Forestry Commission which, until ten years or so ago, specialised in quick-growing conifers for industrial use.

Now, we now reaching the end of the road for the great ornamental trees planted in the 18th and 19th Centuries by private landowners and the leaders of the great Victorian towns and cities, to whom the public park was a monument to civic pride. For even oaks and beeches die in time - and it takes a human lifetime and more to replace them.

I hope that landowners and farmers rush to take advantage of the Forestry Commission grant scheme before it is too late. But I also hope that ordinary folk with a good bit of space to spare - unlike that enjoyed by my elms - plant a tree. What better gift can we leave to our grandchildren - and their grandchildren too?

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