The natural bowl in the Northumberland hills studded with dumpy young conifers looks innocuous enough. But the English borders are the scene of an increasingly bitter battle as ambitious government tree-planting targets collide with concerns for rare plants and birds.
The government is seeking to dramatically increase tree planting to 30,000 hectares of new trees in the UK each year, with plantations sequestering carbon and helping the government reach net zero emissions by 2050.
But conservationists accuse the Forestry Commission, the government agency that must deliver the new trees, of spending taxpayers’ money on non-native plantations, some of which damage peatlands and imperil rare species and habitats.
In Cumbria, the commission admitted it made a mistake in funding a new plantation on peatlands at Berrier Farm that threatens blanket bog and grassland including 100 species of plants such as the heath spotted orchid.
This month conservation organisations including Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and Dorset Wildlife Trust criticised Forestry England, the commission’s business arm, for replanting much of Wareham forest in Dorset with conifers instead of restoring more biodiverse open heathland.
In March last year, 192 hectares of the forest was accidentally burned, and the charities urged Forestry England to restore what was once species-rich heathland instead of planting another timber crop.
But possibly the most contentious site is in Northumberland, where the commission has begun a dispute resolution process to decide whether to fund a landowner’s proposal for a plantation called Wallshield 2, which is opposed by the RSPB, the Northumberland national park authority and Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog.
David Morris, the RSPB area manager for Cumbria and north-east England, said: “Ministers and Defra are breathing down Forestry Commission necks to get trees in the ground. We want to see trees in the ground but we want the right trees in the right place. We would say they have gone for one of the worst places with Wallshield 2.”
Just 2,330 hectares of trees were planted in England in the year to March 2020, and the Forestry Commission must deliver vast increases. Tree planting is hugely popular and environmental charities are urging more ambitious targets. Friends of the Earth wants to double Britain’s forest cover to 26%. The Woodland Trust wants to plant 50m trees over the next five years, while the National Trust has called for 20m this decade.
But, fuelled by generous planting grants, including money to fund specialist surveys and £200 per hectare per year to maintain trees, predominantly non-native plantations are being planted on “marginal” – cheap – farmland, including some wildlife-rich places.