COP26: Does East Anglia Have Enough Trees?

Trees are important in the fight against the climate emergency so it’s worth looking at how few trees we actually have in East Anglia, and what can be done about it.

Anglesey Abbey birch trees
Anglesey Abbey Winter Gardens, Cambridgeshire | Grove of white barked Himalayan Birch Trees. Photo by ukgardenphotos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The UK overall has a very low percentage of tree cover: about 12 percent compared to 37 percent in the EU. (Germany 32 percent; France 36 percent.) England has only 8.7 percent; the Eastern Region has just 7.3 percent.

Within the region, the most wooded county is Norfolk with just under 10 percent (the least being Cambridgeshire on 3.6 percent) but this doesn’t compare favourably with London which has 20 percent cover.

Zoning in further, Fenland, East Cambridgeshire and Rochford are in England’s bottom ten for afforestation.

So being rural does not mean more woodland. About three-quarters of East Anglian land is farmland, higher than the national average of 70 percent.

Trees help in the fight against the climate emergency

The Woodland Trust says trees are a powerful weapon. We must remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic warming, and trees are a good carbon capture device. Woodland ecosystems can lock up carbon in living and dead wood, roots and leaves. Protecting ancient forests is crucial, as mature trees are already sequestering carbon, but we must also plant new woodland.

Mature woodland in Ashridge Forest
Lady’s Walk, Ashridge Forest, Hertfordshire | Early Autumn Views. Photo by ukgardenphotos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Woodland Trust estimates 1.5 million hectares of ‘additional woodland are needed to help reach net zero carbon’. But trees are a slow solution. Research at London’s Imperial College estimates that a broadleaf tree takes up about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide during a lifetime of about 100 years, but a big reduction in atmospheric carbon is needed much sooner than that. Other ways of achieving this, like giving up meat, fossil fuel-powered cars or flying, are quicker, but planting trees is still very worthwhile as an investment for the future. Additionally, they prevent flooding, reduce temperature and pollution in cities, keep soil nutrient-rich, and provide homes and food for entire eco-systems vital to biodiversity. There is also some evidence that trees benefit physical and mental health, even being estimated to avert deaths and hospital admissions.

Examples of tree planting projects in East Anglia

The Essex Forest Initiative is committed to planting 375,000 saplings over 150 hectares, over five years. With the right species, flood risks can be mitigated. A 2020 planting site was on a River Chelmer flood plain, and one this year is on the banks of Ramsey Brook which may alleviate flooding downstream. Indigenous species such as oak, hazel, hornbeam, field maple, crab apple, poplar, willow and alder are planted, and the Initiative encourages community involvement through a Facebook group.

Essex Forest Initiative
Recent tree planting sites in South West Essex: Essex Forest Initiative. Photo by J. Rhodes

Central Bedfordshire announced two new afforestation sites at the Forest of Marston Vale to increase woodland cover within the Vale from 3 percent to 9 percent.

Cambridge City Council runs a ‘Free Trees for Babies’ scheme and the Cambridge Canopy Project has planted over 500 saplings.

In Hertfordshire, the Woodland Trust has planted over 600,000 trees at  Heartwood Forest near Sandridge.

The 1 Million Trees for Norfolk project, launched in November 2020, represents more than one tree per Norfolk inhabitant. There are some organised plantings but garden owners are encouraged to get involved too. The target of one million trees in five years is ambitious: so far 25,000 have been planted.

In 2020, Suffolk County Council committed £228,000 to plant 100,000 trees and hedgerows. Council plantings are supported by The Woodland Trust, and residents are invited to plant their own. Mid-Suffolk Council offers parents a free tree to commemorate a baby’s birth in their Tree for Life scheme.

A national initiative, The Queen’s Green Canopy, encourages people to plant a tree to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022. Gardeners can pin a picture of their tree on the map; there are already some in East Anglia.

Is it enough?

So, there’s currently plenty of interest in tree-planting, and many excellent projects underway. But is it enough, considering the UK is starting from such a low base? (The EU is planning to plant three billion trees by 2030, doubling the annual number to 600 million a year.)

By 2024 the UK government intends to plant ‘7,000 hectares of woodlands per year’, nowhere near the 1.5 million hectares The Woodland Trust estimates we need. The Trust says it’s disappointing. This rate of planting means the 17 percent target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change ‘won’t be met until 2091 – more than 40 years late’, according to the Labour Party.

It’s difficult finding space in our small country, but are we really doing enough?

*If you have space, and want to plant a sapling, here’s some useful advice about species from The Woodland Trust.

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