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Seeing both the wood and the trees

Friday 28 May 2010

Britain has been chopping back its tree cover for 3,000 years, reports our countryside commentator John Sheard. Now, at last, we are beginning to take the necessary steps to make amends both here and abroad

WHEN I was nobbut a lad, there was a popular song which went: “I talk to the trees but they don’t listen to me...” It was a lament from a young girl who told her troubles to the trees because the boy she fancied was ignoring her.

Well, I did my bit of tree-talking in my teenage years but it was some time before I began to realise that it was the trees, rather than the girl who rebuffed me, which deserved my concern.


Growing greener

They were building a huge post-war housing estate near my home and hundreds of trees which had been part of my rural playground were felled. It was a programme which started in the 1950s and has been going on, virtually non-stop, ever since.

There was nothing new in this. Man began clearing the trees above Malham Tarn here in the Yorkshire Dales at least 3,000 years ago to make way for primitive agriculture - a process repeated on an industrial scale in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which left the Dales with one of the sparsest tree coverings in England.

In between, trees were felled for building materials, to make charcoal, to build ships, make pit props and – as recently as 30 years ago – when thousands of miles of hedgerow were grubbed out to make bigger fields in one of the most catastrophic blunders ever enacted by the old Ministry of Agriculture.

The fact of the matter, in the land of Constable and Turner, Wordsworth and Donne, where thousands of painters and poets have worshipped our trees, our treatment of them has been positively shameful.

Were it not for the landed gentry of the 18th Century, with their deer parks and coppices for breeding game, or the Victorian philanthropists who planted the great public parks in our towns and cities, we would probably by now be forced to visit some arboreal museum or wildlife centre to actually look at a tree.

Trouble is, even trees die although it can take hundreds of years. Those magnificent 18th Century elms and beeches planted by the gentry are now at their prime. Millions of the trees in 19th Century parks are in dire distress caused by a century or more of coal smoke followed now by even more lethal car exhaust fumes. So is Britain about to become like Russian steppes, mile upon mile of treeless plain?

desperately concerned about the world-wide destruction of the rain forests...

The answer to that, I am glad to report from my emails this week, is a grateful No – although it will be a close run thing. For, at long last, Government has recognised that trees are important. Not, alas, because of their aesthetic beauty, nor the tranquillity they allow the human soul, but as a carbon store – i.e., a defence against climate change.

As we reported earlier in the week, the Ministry of Defence has linked with the Woodland Trust to embark on a massive tree-planting drive on its 240,000 hectares of training grounds, much of it in North Yorkshire.

This is very much to be applauded for the Army has a long history of encouraging wildlife to use its training areas as breeding grounds – it is quite amazing how birds and mammals seem happy to raise their young with tanks trundling along a few yards away – but to get into large-scale re-forestry is a another major step forward.

Also into my Inbox this week dropped a colourful missive from Professor David Bellamy, the TV botanist and eco-campaigner who, like me and many under-reported scientists, believes that so-called climate change is part of a natural cycle and not man-made.

He is, however, desperately concerned about the world-wide destruction of the rain forests and large-scale tree felling here in the UK so he is leading a charity appeal under which, for £10, people can have one tree planted here in the UK and another in Africa.

Some of those in Africa are fruit trees, which not only contribute to biodiversity but prevent soil erosion and help with water retention, playing a vital role in reducing famine (for more information, see www.treeappeal.com)

And on a more local level here in North Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Dales National Park has a major tree-planting project under way and the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust is hoping soon to plant its one millionth sapling. Could it be that after 3,000 years, Mankind is beginning to see both the wood and the trees?

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