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Climate Change Blog: Tree-planting in South Gloucestershire

13 April 2020

Sally Pattison, an ecologist at South Gloucestershire Council and a member of ADEPT, has planted 8,000 trees this year. Here she talks about her (almost) one-woman tree-planting project and answers some key questions on how to plant a tree, which trees to plant and the impact on climate change…

About five years ago a new boss joined us who wanted to better understand the land we owned and managed. We had little data so as a team we designed a survey that helped us to prioritise each parcel of land – identifying how visible it was to the public, its purpose and any opportunities. It took about two years to complete as there were only three of us and we had to fit it around our normal workloads. In total 11,500 areas of green space were identified, of which 2,000 sites were appropriate to plant trees on. We didn’t do anything with the data immediately but the tree list in particular bugged me; it was an itch I needed to scratch!

In January last year I decided it was time I started a project to get sites planted with trees. It’s amazing the difference a year can make but at the time, whilst no one said I shouldn’t do it, no one was clamouring to join me on my mission either. 

I approached the Woodland Trust who said I could have as many trees as I liked, so we agreed a three-year project that would see me plant 8,000 a year – it was a big challenge going from planting less than a hundred a year to this many, but in reality it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. As well as the 14-species the Woodland Trust gave me, I also bought a small number of my favourites – guelder rose, cherry plum, spindle, wayfaring and buckthorn – things with nectar and berries.

So in November I set out with a groundsman and an apprentice, just as the General Election was announced and tree planting moved higher up the agenda. Suddenly my project was making headlines! We planted in all sorts of places; scrappy bits of land, gaps in hedgerows, corners of small woods and informal recreation grounds. Planting is definitely better where there is already a hedge or wood but ultimately trees will just grow, particularly if we stop mowing. We can play at gardeners but it’s always best when we’re able to leave nature to it.

On the question of which trees to plant, definitely a rich variety – nature loves complexity. Ecologically, bringing in new alien plants for woodlands isn’t a great idea as they’re not suited to our soil microbes and essential fungi, not to mention everything further up the food chain. There are tables online indicating which trees may be less able to cope in a changing climate, but I know beech is thought to be in trouble because it is such a slow coloniser. Willow, however, is definitely an easy and free one to plant – we took lots of cuttings from a willow tree and just stuck them in the ground!

In terms of carbon capture, which trees you plant is partly irrelevant. Do your homework but from the research I’ve read 90% of woodland CO2 absorption is done by the soil. It is what happens underground that is important. One teaspoon of rich soil holds more living organisms than there are people on the planet – bacteria, fungal hyphae, protozoa and nematodes. These microscopic bugs and fungi will form associations with tree roots, storing carbon underground. It’s like magic. 

I have learnt so much these past 12 months, but the main message is you can start now and the more of us that do it the better. You don’t have to wait for all the data – map and plant at the same time as you find spaces. If you over think it too much you will never get going. It is heartening that alongside our planting project things also happen naturally as trees self-seed, and the two things together will play a part in the climate and ecological emergency solution.