An open letter to the government: why we shouldn’t be so silly about trees

“Legislation encouraging us to plant more trees- surely that’s a good thing?”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (or DEFRA if you want a cute little nickname) is currently running a public consultation with the aim of making it easier to plant trees. For many tree enthusiasts, myself included, the initial response to this is a positive one; finally our government is proposing something beneficial to the environment (or so it seems). Surely, you ask, increased trees = increased habitats, increased biodiversity, minimised flood risks due to increased water stores, reduced soil erosion and economic tourism value?

However the way in which DEFRA want to effect this ‘tree increase’ is substantially less environmentally friendly than it seems. They are proposing the removal of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for areas of up to 100 hectares in size (current legislation requires an EIA for any new woodland over 5 hectares -or less in more environmentally sensitive areas important for conservation, such as National Parks). EIAs are vital to ensuring tree planting is environmentally sound; they assess whether a tree is right for the proposed location (i.e. native to that environment) and whether afforestation of a particular area would destroy any existing wildlife sites or have any other knock on impacts.

Before EIAs were introduced, many ecologically fragile habitats (such as peat bogs) were damaged by the planting of coniferous forests for commercial logging (essentially cash crops of trees). Unsuitable planting such as this can have other long term impacts; draining of peat bogs in Ireland has caused increased surface water run-off leading to flash flooding, lowering of the water table which acted to increase peat acidity and a resultant acidification of stream water (Irish Peatland Conservation Council, 2017). In order for a potential environmental crisis formed by a string of events such as these to be averted, it is vital that EIAs remain a part of tree planting and new woodland creation.

It is also important to take into account the significance of smaller habitats (such as wildflower meadows) for maintaining a high level of biodiversity. The protection of these areas may well be eclipsed if the threshold at which an EIA is required is increased, leading to destruction of valuable habitats through misjudgement or for deliberate commercial gain.

Whilst increasing the number of trees planted has definite positive environmental impacts which are not to be ignored or discouraged, it is important to recognise that increasing the threshold at which EIAs are required is not a sustainable or ecologically sound way of simply ‘getting more trees’. Forests are a vital component of the UK’s natural habitat, and it is therefore important that they are cultivated in the right environments in order to preserve- rather than destroy- wildlife habitats.

  • Email DEFRA (EIAconsultation@defra.gsi.gov.uk) and let them know that we need to preserve environmental assessments in order to have forests that aren’t destroying important wildlife areas or inadvertently causing flooding
  • Have a look at their website to read more about the consultation process
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