Planting trees is more vital than ever, an eclectic gathering of 130 scientists, environmentalists, tree experts, project leaders and multifarious tree lovers concurred at The Tree Conference in Glastonbury on Saturday, 4 November.
Despite the widely converging views of those attending the event at the Red Brick Building, all were united by a common call to action – to plant more trees.
Conference organiser Suzi Martineau said: “The day brought a huge range of sometimes conflicting perspectives but we all reached the same conclusion for the wellbeing of our children and future generations. With UK planting rates currently averaging just 5000 hectares per year, we’re felling trees faster than we’re planting, so there was an eagerness among attendees to return to a level nearer the yearly 25,000-30,000 hectares mark attained in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Put simply, if we’d retained the level of planting from that era we’d be carbon neutral by now.”
The conference’s impressive line-up speakers included plant scientist and former Vice President of the Royal Society, Professor Sir David Read; John Tucker, a director of the Woodland Trust; renegade tree scientist Diana-Beresford-Kroeger; filmmaker and explorer Bruce Parry; evolutionary ecologist Dr Alan Rayner; and Clare Dubois and Wendy Stephenson of global reforestation charity, TreeSisters. The day’s lively talks and debates were broadcast live by Angelfish Films, drawing a Livestream audience of close to 300 UK and international online viewers.
With the UK’s current forest cover being at just 12% compared to an average 34% cover in other European countries, Professor Sir David Read called for an emphasis on increasing afforestation to facilitate carbon sequestration, highlighting that Sitka spruce did this particularly well. “What is remarkable is that it’s very high rates of carbon fixation are achieved on land that is too poor for agricultural use, meaning mitigation of climate change can be achieved without competing for better quality land that can continue to be used for food production,” he said.
And to ensure the survival of deciduous woodland, David underlined the need to draw enough carbon out of the atmosphere to maintain the correct environmental conditions, and suggested planting conifer stands to protect the native woodland. With the UK currently importing 80% of its timber, he also stressed the economic argument for planting trees, making good crop for farmers to provide timber on home ground.
In his talk, Understanding Trees and Fungi as Flow Forms, Dr Alan Rayner, expressed his view that, contrary to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” view of natural selection, nature is more reciprocal and ordered for “survival of the fitting”, emphasising the less ecologically and socially damaging nature of this approach.
Bruce Parry shared fascinating excerpts from his new film TAWAI: A Voice from the Forest, which features indigenous rainforest peoples, the Penan of Borneo and the Pirahã of the Amazon, in communication with trees. Both tribes are characterised by a common understanding of our human interconnectedness with nature and a respect for the natural world. Citing our western perception of ourselves as separate from nature as the cause of our continuing drive to cut down the rainforests and disrespect nature, Bruce warned that we are on a fast track to environmental destruction, suggesting the first step forward was for us to learn to feel a real sense of connection to, and care for, nature. “There is hope, but we need to shift our attention and awareness towards the heart,” he said.
Joining the conference via Skype from the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere, biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger gave an overview of the best trees to plant in Somerset to stop climate change and support the local population’s health, highlighting the medicinal benefits of the hawthorn, willow, yew and Scots pine, among others. “If every person on the planet planted one tree per year for the next six years, it would take billions of tonnes out of the atmosphere and into the body of the trees,” she said. “This would buy us some time.”
In discussion with Clare Dubois, founder of global reforestation charity TreeSisters – who joined the conference via Skype from California – Wendy Stephenson, Treasurer of TreeSisters, echoed Bruce Parry, saying: “We can plant trees but we should be in a state of connection that stops us from chopping them down in the first place”. Introducing the new TreeSisters ‘Billion Trees Per Year’ campaign, Claire Dubois stated: “By reforesting the tropics we can lock carbon into trees where the most carbon is sequestered. If we lose the forest belts we’ve had it.”
Other highlights of the day included the Tree Conference Art Exhibition and a series of group discussions led by leaders from twelve different tree projects. Projects included International Tree Foundation, Friends of the Earth (Glastonbury), Edible Forest Gardens, Rainforest Trust UK, tree planting network Tree by Tree, and Hazel Hill Wood, a woodland centre near Salisbury offering trainings in resilience and wellbeing, learning from nature.
The day’s grand finale was a panel debate hosted by landscape consultant Adam Hunt. In response to the question – what percentage forest cover do we need in the UK? – both John Tucker of the Woodland Trust and David Read agreed 15% was achievable. John explained that he regularly travels the country persuading people to plant more trees, pointing out potential spaces on school grounds and peoples’ lands, and in hedgerows and corners of fields. “We’re currently planting at the lowest rate for 40 years,” he said, “but you have to face a high level of bureaucracy before you can put a tree in the ground. 15% would be a great start.”
Suzi Martineau, Organiser of The Tree Conference said: “The most important part of the day for me was the group discussions with all the different inspirational tree projects – please check them out on our website, they offer fantastic templates for things we can all do in our local areas to play our part in the re-greening of our world.”