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Volume 809: debated on Monday 25 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance they are using to inform their plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. At the same time, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register.

My Lords, in our manifesto we committed to increasing the planting of trees across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to achieve this. We have consulted on a new England tree strategy which will be published in the spring. Responses to the consultation and ongoing advice from the Forestry Commission, charities, sector experts and others are informing the development of an ambitious plan to deliver our commitments in England

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. My particular concern, however, is the conflicting advice that growers are receiving. The Forestry Commission, which is the government expert on these matters, is encouraging a portfolio approach to combat climate change, including the importation of seed sourced from the benchmark of up to five degrees south, whereas the Woodland Trust, driven by biosecurity fears, is recommending only UK-sourced and grown plants. However, seed has been safely imported since time immemorial. Whom do we believe?

My Lords, the England tree strategy is designed to make sense of the Government’s commitment to identify the steps we will have to take in order to deliver on it and identify the funding streams. The priorities will be clearly set out in the England tree strategy, but, fundamentally, we will favour a mixed approach. However, we also favour an approach that recognises the biosecurity needs of this country and the fact that there are tree diseases queuing up at the border on the continent, waiting to cross the water and do damage to our trees.

My Lords, I support the Government’s tree planting scheme, bearing in mind that trees that are planted in upland areas will need a growth period of 30 years-plus in order to sequester carbon effectively. How will the Government ensure that the species that are planted will be capable of surviving in a warmer climate 30 years ahead?

The noble Lord makes an important point, but, as I have said, the England tree strategy will take a very long-term view. It will provide a vision for what our treescape should look like up to 2050 and probably beyond, even though the steps that it will identify relate to this Parliament. We need to and will be taking a very long-term view.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of woodlands. What effective guidance will the Government give to ensure that these trees are not subsequently destroyed by grey squirrels?

Invasive non-native species like grey squirrels and muntjac deer are a clear threat to our native biodiversity. They cost the economy around £1.8 billion per year and they impact negatively on our trees and woodlands. The Forestry Commission provides advice on maintaining red squirrel habitats and managing grey squirrels, while the Roslin Institute is researching into ways to breed infertility into females. This would provide a more humane way of reducing their numbers. In addition, we support work by the UK Squirrel Accord in developing an oral contraceptive to reduce the grey squirrel population.

My Lords, trees are essential to meeting the Government’s biodiversity and carbon targets. However, massive tree planting programmes have seen saplings being poorly planted and subsequently dying in large numbers. Can the Minister reassure us that the money to be put into the tree planting strategy will indeed deliver healthy adult trees in the future?

I can absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that the purpose of the England tree strategy is to deliver trees for the long term. It would be regarded by us and by everyone else as a failure were we not to deliver larger mature trees in the future.

My Lords, I declare an interest through my work in conservation as set out in the register. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating the people of Pakistan on their successful initiative of planting 1 billion trees in their ongoing bold campaign to plant an additional 10 billion trees? Can he share with the House any practical lessons that we can learn from these programmes?

I absolutely and enthusiastically commend and celebrate Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami and the, I believe, tens of thousands of jobs that have been created on the back of it. It shows what is possible. Here in the UK, we are committed to increasing tree planting across the country by 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. That, too, will mean an increasing number of people working in the forestry and arboriculture sector. Our upcoming England tree strategy will map out that ambition and the steps we will need to take to realise it.

Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government’s tree planting ambition, which I fully endorse, is regarded as a key part of a land use strategy and that the need to address food security is also taken into account in identifying land to be planted? Can he further reassure us that, in optimising carbon sequestration, other benefits—to the ecosystem, the economic benefits of growing trees, and public access—will also be taken into account, and that a mix of species is encouraged so that regeneration might take place?

I strongly endorse the noble Lord’s comments. Trees are much more than carbon sticks; they provide biodiversity benefits, benefits in managing water flow and reducing pollution in the water system, in preventing or minimising the risk of flooding, in holding water for longer during the dry season, in amenity value for people, and so many benefits besides. Our tree policy and the incentives that are part of it will attempt to ensure that with public money we are purchasing as much solution as we possibly can. That, too, will be reflected in the new environmental land management scheme, which will replace the old common agriculture policy in a few years’ time.

My Lords, given the importance of tree planting to our climate change obligations, what legislative and enforcement powers do the Government envisage to ensure that tree planting targets have actually been met? Given that we have failed to meet the targets to date, will the Government commit to enshrining them in law via the Environment Bill?

My Lords, it is certainly true that we have failed to meet targets in the past, but that is why we are embarking on the England tree strategy and why we have provided numerous funding streams to ensure that we can practically deliver that ambition. We have the £640 million nature for climate fund. We have the Woodland Carbon Guarantee. In due course we will have the environmental land management system. We have the urban tree challenge fund, the trees outside woodlands project, and the green recovery challenge fund, which has just been doubled to £8 million. We have recently announced funding for 10 community forests from Yorkshire to Somerset, which will deliver around 500 hectares, with an investment of £12 million—and so on and so forth. We have the tools and the funding in place to deliver the trees that we need.

My Lords, the Corporation of London has warned against focusing just on increasing numbers of trees and thereby ignoring the role of wood pasture and slow-growing, long-lived landscape trees, which sequester more carbon than equivalent areas of woods plus pasture. Is this fact being taken into account as well as the amenity value of such areas?

The noble Baroness makes a really important point, which relates to an answer I gave earlier about the multiple benefits of trees and woodlands. One area that we are looking at closely is the important role of natural colonisation or natural regeneration of land in increasing woodland cover. It encourages natural establishment of local trees, species diversity and better adaptation to local conditions. It supports a wider range of wildlife but also reduces the risk of importing tree disease—a point made earlier. It also reduces plastic tree guards—a terrible blight in many parts of the country—and is, on the whole, low-cost.

My Lords, in the past half century, we have lost many trees to disease, including an estimated 20 million mature elm trees and a projected 100 million ash trees. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have sufficient research and expertise in tree diseases to keep ahead of future threats? Will the Minister tell us how many universities in England offer postgraduate education in tree pathology?

My Lords, I cannot provide a specific numerical answer, but will follow up with a written answer. We know that a large number of ash trees will become infected, but not all will die. We expect 1% to 5% of ash trees to show some tolerance to the disease, which is heritable, so we are funding research into a future breeding programme of tolerant trees. We are also conducting the world’s largest screening trials and will be planting the first tolerant trees this year.