You don’t get veteran trees without first having seeds. And while regeneration is the ‘natural’ way of trees creating their own history, for many centuries humans have been involved with the creation of woodland. In the early nineteenth century a spate of planting on the edge of Ullswater created Glencoyne Park – a deer park that would provide the perfect environment for the families who counted hunting among their leisure activities. Going back yet further, some of the ash trees of the Lake District, in Glencoyne and elsewhere (and perhaps most celebrated in the Borrowdale Valley) have been the friends of farmers for five hundred years or more: pollarding, or the removal of branches, provides food for livestock and helps the ash trees live longer.

In the 1920s, following the war-time depletion of timber reserves, conifers were planted in huge quantities. There was less planting of broadleaf species but woodlands, including ancient woodlands (those more than four hundred years old) continued to be a crucial part of the patchwork of tree cover in the UK. Over the last century the percentage of tree cover, which had shrunk to a mere 5% of UK land mass in the early 1900s, has been growing (with an estimated 13% of land mass now covered by woodland*), but there is still much to be done to increase this.

While planting trees for a wood crop remains important, the emphasis is shifting, with more trees and woods being planted not for eventual harvesting but to complement or enrich the landscape, to add biodiversity, to ensure the presence of veterans in future, and to offer stabilisation, in the long term, to soils that have become depleted by over grazing in the past and by heavy rainfall (with Storm Desmond in December of 2015 being the most catastrophic). Earlier this month the National Trust’s planting of 1400 trees on five Lake District sites during one day was an event that marked an important and ongoing task.

A handful of trees to be planted at Wasdale.

Rob and I wanted to get involved, so I headed over to Glencoyne and he went west to Wasdale for the day. Two very different sites, with different plans. Glencoyne Park is heavily wooded with a huge variety of trees (see blog Wealth in difference); but the National Trust and tenant farmers Candida and Sam Hodgson felt a little help was needed. A few years ago ranger Steve Dowson collected crab apples from the old trees that stand here, and sent them to the National Trust site in Devon where new trees are grown and nurtured. We spent the day building cages – essential to protect the young trees from deer, and from any sheep that wander into the parkland from nearby grazing land. We shared chores – measuring and cutting wood, holding it in place, banging in nails, trimming it, all the while talking about the park, and trees in general. As I wandered from one site to the next with Liam, one of the rangers, we talked about mycorrhizal fungi and the symbiotic, indeed essential relationship, between these fungi and trees. There has been a co-evolution of trees and fungi over millennia and it’s a fascinating subject (something I plan to pick up on in a future blog).

making tree cages for crab apples in Glencoyne.

In the afternoon, children from Patterdale Primary school joined us to dig holes and put the saplings in. Rob and I had met these children last summer when we walked through the park to the Glencoyne Pine and it was good to see them playing a part in creating a future for this woodland, and the many species that dwell here (a recent bird survey, for instance, showed that Glencoyne Park had the richest variety of birds in the Ullswater catchment; and another survey of lichen here has revealed a rich and healthy abundance.)

Planting crab apples with pupils from Patterdale School

Over in Wasdale, Rob was part of a twenty-plus-strong team planting saplings along the flanks of Lingmell, a hundred metres or so above the slate grey slab of Wastwater. The land is dotted by twisted hawthorn and holly and the 120 new trees were planted to reinvigorate the open pasture with fresh growth. In each wire cage two trees were planted, either a holly or hawthorn, twinned with an alder or a rowan. The idea is that the spiky tree will help its less-protected neighbour get established as they grow together.

Placing a wire cage under Lingmell.

When we were planting there was still a cap of white on the fells – snow held by the cold. The weather today, though, feels unseasonably warm and we’re wondering if there will be any ‘decent’ snow before the winter is out. After a December that was the warmest on record, and a January with a mean temperature 0.2 degrees higher than those recorded between 1981 and 2010* we’re not expecting a severe drop – but there is time yet. If it snows, we’ll be out there.

In recent conversations, we’ve discovered we’re not the only ones to be missing the white stuff and the feel of a good cold winter. And even though temperature fluctuations from year to year are to be expected, we’re mindful of climate change. One of the objectives of tree planting, the one which is perhaps at the forefront of so many minds in Cumbria and Yorkshire, and other places hit hard by flooding events in the last few years, is to increase tree cover in general for the benefits of carbon capture and slowing the flow. It’s an ongoing issue that the National Trust is not alone in trying to address – the Woodland Trust has just launched its ambitious campaign to plant 64 million trees in the UK over the coming decade – one for every person who lives in the UK. Depending on where you live you might think there are lots of trees, or too few, but statistically, the UK is lagging behind most of its European partners in terms of percentage of tree cover, so campaigns like these are very welcome.

building the cages at Wasdale.

Around the globe, organisations and individuals are also planting new trees and woodlands – despite the shockingly fast disappearance of ancient forests being cleared for agriculture (for instance almost 80% of forest coverage has disappeared in Sumatra since 1980, to make way for a monoculture of palm oil plantations). It’s encouraging to know that there is a drive to keep valuing trees, something that is not new – in Tajikistan there is a long, long tradition of planting a dozen trees for a newborn boy in the countryside. These trees provide timber for a house when that child is older, gets married, and starts his own family and begins, again, to plant new trees. In the village of Piplantri in India, the arrival of every baby girl is celebrated with the planting of 111 trees.

That’s not quite what we were doing here in Cumbria, but it was good to play our own small part in the creation of future woodlands. We’ll be doing it again, and again, and again … and if you want to get involved check out volunteering opportunities with the National Trust, the Woodland Trust and, in Cumbria, Friends of the Lake District – the care and creation of woodlands is an ongoing task.

At the end of the day in Wasdale.

 

  • For a snap shot on the percentage in forest cover, country by country, and changes between 2009 and 2015 take a look at this data on forest cover from the World Bank(but bear in mind that trees outside forests are also important and may not be contained in these stats. In the UK, for instance, 50% of trees exist outside woodlands.)

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