Bishop of St Albans on the importance of planting more trees and native species

On 13th February 2020 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Kinnoull, “that this House takes note of the threats posed by pests and diseases to native trees in the United Kingdom.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

“the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The ancients certainly knew some of the medicinal properties of leaves. Perhaps what they did not quite realise in the way we do today, due to scientific research, is the extraordinarily vital role trees play in modern life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other chemicals, and trapping airborne dust. Strategically planted trees, along with appropriate hedging, can make a material difference by reducing pollution alongside busy roads. In urban areas they regulate temperature, helping to reduce heat in the summer and, if planted in the right places, acting as windbreaks and even providing energy savings in the winter.

We have yet again been facing more flooding and revisiting its causes, part of which is to do with the removal of important areas of trees, which have the ability to slow down the run-off when there are heavy rains and which themselves absorb massive amounts of water. As well as providing habitats for wildlife, they have many wider benefits. Indeed, some research suggests that when people recuperate in hospitals they do so at a faster rate if they have windows looking out over the countryside, particularly where there are trees.

Three miles north of St Albans where I live is the newish Heartwood Forest, on the edge of the village of Sandridge. It is a wonderful project that has been developed by the Woodland Trust. It has 850 acres— 340 hectares—of woodland, with more than half a million native trees. Half a million is a lot of trees to get planted, yet the Committee on Climate Change recommends that we will need to plant about 30,000 hectares —74,000 acres—of woodland annually if we are to address issues of climate change. So far we are planting fewer than that. Indeed, some voices claim that we ought to be planting more like a billion trees, which may seem beyond our reach and an impossible target.

However, we can learn a lot from Heartwood Forest. It has been the most extraordinary initiative, bringing together local people to work voluntarily on the project. It is increasing wildlife and involving many groups and schools from every part of society. Above all it has produced a wonderful local amenity that is drawing people from a wide area to enjoy the walks. It is good for the physical and mental health of the local community.

Tree planting is crucial for much wider issues, as is trying to work out how we can prevent the death of those trees that are dying. It is notable that, as Defra put it, since 2010, some 15 million trees have been planted, and there is a 25-year environmental plan to grow woodland cover further.

In the dioceses of the Church of England we are playing our part. The Diocese of Lincoln is planning to use small areas of underproductive glebe for tree planting. The Bishop of Norwich has taken to presenting all confirmation candidates with a hazel sapling, so that they can plant a tree and one day hold a hazelnut. Those who know the spiritual works of Julian of Norwich will understand the hazelnut’s significance. The plans for the Lambeth Conference taking place in Canterbury this summer include planting the “Lambeth Grove” on four acres of diocesan land near the village of Shepherdswell.

I am glad to have planted more than 40 trees in my garden in the last few years. However, turning to the focus of today’s debate—the increase in diseases and pests affecting our native trees—the close connection with climate change makes this important not only for those of us who love and plant trees. How do we get this virtuous cycle going? There is evidence that some diseases are surviving in this country because our temperature is edging up. The danger is that as diseases take hold because the new climate is more attractive for them, it will be even harder to get the extra trees in, not least our native trees. Native trees are less likely to need lots of fertilisers, and are more likely to grow healthily, because this is where they have developed.

How do we address this downward spiral, when, with increasing temperatures, more diseases are coming? There is the danger that we are fighting a losing battle. Therefore, I ask the Minister, first, about the general commitment of the Government to tree planting for rural landowners. Is that going to continue? Can it be increased? To what extent is it dependent on planting native trees?

Secondly, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to reduce dramatically the numbers of trees being imported? Can we follow the good example of the Woodland Trust, which now only plants trees propagated in this country? What representations are the Government making to the largest landowners in the country to encourage them to get on board with the prevention of native tree diseases and pests? Finally, what assessment is being made of Defra’s tree health resilience strategy? How do we know what impact it is making and how can we build on it in the years to come?


Lord Carrington (CB): .. Climate change needs to be taken into account, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said. It affects what species we plant and how well they do…

Lord Chartres (CB): ..Of course, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has remarked, right at the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures we have the myth of the two trees in the paradise garden: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. The tree of knowledge is fatal because it is exploitative knowledge; it is knowledge torn from its connections with human health and flourishing, and knowledge that treats trees simply as an economic factor, a commodity. Our problems come, very often, from choosing the wrong tree. That myth in the paradise garden of the two trees is one that still has resonance. ..

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