The idea that planting trees is the wrong way to tackle our depleted woodlands is quite controversial. Expressing this opinion out loud at a Tree Conference is downright dangerous - but Isabella Tree, author of the book Wilding, was so persuasive that she’d convinced most of the audience by the end of her talk.
Tree challenged the wisdom of the accepted concept and argued that letting trees seed naturally and grow up through brambles and scrub, which provides natural protection, is a more successful way to develop woodlands long term - and her book provides the compelling supporting evidence.
In it, she tracks the inspirational story of how she and her husband Charlie Burrell undertook a daring experiment to rewild their Knepp Estate in West Sussex. After decades of intensive but unprofitable farming had left their 3,500 acres denuded, the land is now bursting with life - from critically endangered nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies to rocketing populations of many other struggling species.
Tree explained: “Dynamic open wood pasture systems are vital for our native wildlife. At Knepp, we are achieving tree regeneration with a minimum of human intervention.”
Her talk was thought-provoking and hopeful, and encouraged the idea of getting more trees in our landscape through this cheaper, more efficient and less polluting way. She backing up her argument with data accumulated since starting her project in 2000.
The conference also highlighted a worryingly under-researched area: the negative impact of human society on the fungi that plays a vital role in the health of our forests.
Dr Martin Bidartondo and his pan-European team have spent ten years investigating the often-overlooked relationship of the plant-fungal system.
Their work so far has shown excess man-made CO2 and nitrogen is overloading our woodlands and adversely affecting the delicate underground network that links tree roots. He had a stark warning that we continue to ignore this vital symbiosis at our peril.
It was not all doom and gloom, however. It was heartwarming to hear the uplifting enthusiasm of a group of school children from Hampshire. They eloquently represented Andover Trees United, which was founded by Wendy Davis to work closely with 25 schools and the community as part of a ten-year plan to create a woodland on a 44-acre patch of land.
Now at the half-way point, 5,000 trees have been planted in the Harmony Wood. Granted, against the scale of our arboreal deficiencies it's a little acorn – only 10 percent of England is covered in woodland compared with an average 37 percent across the rest of Europe. But the youngsters' interest has spread to their family and friends and forged a strong bond between these trees and their community.
The subject matter of environmental conferences tends to keep the mood sober and downbeat but Suzi Martineau and her team heading up the Frome meeting for the second year, maintained a flow of positive news that left the audience enthused about how communities can drive the change we need.
The idea of a wildlife corridor - linking habitats so that animals can move freely - is well known. The Tree Conference organisers have an ambitious aim to create an information corridor, offering training to support others in establishing Tree Conferences in the UK and beyond that can work together for maximum results.
The plan reflects the conference's optimistic message that there are many routes to the over-arching aim: to encourage a love of and desire to protect our trees. There’s even a place for digging holes and planting them.
Gary Cook is an environmental painter who was the senior artist for The Sunday Times for twenty six years. He exhibits regularly in the south west and London including with the Society of Graphic Fine Art, the RI, the RWA and The Arborealists. Gary tweets from @cookthepainter.