Counting Trees

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Trees to the far horizon – but at what cost?

It’s hard to imagine a more depressing General Election. It falls far outside the remit of this blog to enter the world of politics, but there is a single strand of policy which has become increasingly noisy and childish over the last few weeks. I can hardly resist a note of exasperated despair.

In a bid to demonstrate their green credentials, the various parties have been competing over aspirational boasts on tree planting. One party says “we’ll plant a million trees!” – at which the other scoffs and says “Is that all? We’re going to plant a billion!” It’s ecological virtue signaling of the most pathetic kind, but it raises some really worrying questions for those of us who value open ground and the wildlife and people who depend upon it.

At the current rate of expansion, commercial forests will soon consume the uplands of Galloway in their entirety. Whether or not we have chosen to become a forest is almost immaterial; we’re now in a cycle where local objection to land use change is passed to Holyrood where it’s quickly overruled. Ministers say: “we don’t care, it’s happening – put up or shut up”. Whether it’s wind development or forest expansion, this busted feedback loop has played out so often now that many local people feel completely disempowered. We are giving up.

It’s a scary moment to look up and see these political promises being made simply on the basis of numbers. The inference is that a hundred million trees is twice as good as fifty million trees, and the narrative is based on “the more, the merrier”. But come to Galloway and see what extensive afforestation has done to us over the last forty years. Drive from Newton Stewart to Moniaive via Carsphairn and realize that the road is little more than a slot in the centre of a vast industrial complex.

We have been haemorraging biodiversity during the course of my lifetime; many of our most important peatlands will never recover from the first generation of planting. Wading birds are almost gone, and many hill farmers will soon join them. And in the midst of all this investment and backing, you can hardly to fail to notice that as Galloway is transformed into a timber powerhouse, the cinema has closed; pubs are boarded up; entire streets are dead and littered with For Sale signs. Young people leave school and go straight to Glasgow or Edinburgh because there are no jobs in the southwest. Forestry is in the ascendency; we’re told to be glad of the trees – but it feels like Galloway has never been a more down-at-heel place.

And I don’t mean to moan or wring my hands. I understand that manifesto promises need to be short and punchy, and that nuance is easily lost in the scrabble for votes. Climate change is terrifying, and it makes us feel good to embrace quick-fixes which align with our ideas of sustainability. But I would feel a great deal more comfortable with this direction of travel if there was some consideration given to the quality and integration of the new trees rather than measuring success simply by quantity.

One thought on “Counting Trees

  1. That’s so sad. Industrial blocks of single species, single age trees are a monoculture as devoid of biodiversity as any other intensively produced crop. Any long term land use change warrants careful consideration of its impact on the lives of local people as well as on wildlife. Keep writing about it, Patrick.

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