Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Oak Sapling
Alan Levine
Save the Oaks campaign has united communities with coppicing experts and woodland ecologists to rescue tens of thousands of oak saplings from destruction.

When an oak tree is felled, the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are grown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.

It could have been easy to assume that we would retreat into ourselves as our worlds grew smaller and freedom to travel was restricted as we withdrew into quarantine at the end of March. 

It seems, in fact, that the opposite may be true. Our daily mandated exercise outside as well as time spent in gardens and balconies, for those who had them, may have brought us closer to the natural world.

Despite our circumstances, the last six months has seen brave souls out protecting ancient woodland along the proposed HS2 rail route in Warwickshire, as well as community campaigns to protect threatened ancient trees such as the Happy Man Tree in Hackney, London and the 400-year-old Three Oaks in Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire.

Grassroots

Similarly, the success of our grassroots online crowdfunding campaign - Save the Oaks - to save tens of thousands of oak saplings also suggest that despite our confinement, the general public are seeking to engage with and protect the natural world, perhaps more than ever.

The story of how 750,000 oak saplings came to be threatened with destruction is mainly rooted in declining tree planting rates, especially in England and Wales. Over the past few years, despite government ministers repeatedly calling on landowners to plant more trees and promises for funding, the UK has failed even to reach relatively modest planting targets.

As concern about climate change has climbed up the political agenda, the December 2019 election appeared to signal a cross-party shift in attitudes to tree planting.  The Conservative Party, for example, promised to triple UK tree-planting rates to 30,000 hectares a year.  This is based on recommendations by the UK Committee on Climate Change for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Tripling UK tree-planting rates equates to planting between 90-120 million trees per year. The Committee estimates that this would increase the UK’s forest cover to at least 17 per cent of the land area of the UK, and together with introducing measures to improve woodland management, could sequester 14MtCO2e a year. Britain currently has the lowest percentage tree cover in Europe: 13 percent compared to a 38 percent European average.

When an oak tree is felled, the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are grown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.

Although these figures seem dramatic they are actually quite modest. The 12-hour Green Legacy campaign in Ethiopia in July 2019, saw 353 million tree saplings planted in just 12 hours across 1000 locations. One estimate suggests that we need to plant 1.2 trillion more trees globally to counteract 10 years of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

That said, there are many complex factors involved in calculating the benefit of tree planting for the climate, including species and location, as well as balancing the benefits to biodiversity and commercial interests. Mass tree planting cannot and should not be seen as a simple fix to prevent climate and ecological breakdown.

Bureaucracy

It is impossible to just magic up 90 to 120 million trees for planting each year. Specialists must first collect tree seeds which are then cleaned and stratified (treated so that germination can begin) before they can be sown at commercial tree nurseries. It then takes around three years of careful care and attention before they are ready to be planted out.  

Nurseries must therefore make predictions about likely demand two to three years in advance. A significant change in subsidies or bureaucratic processes, may result in nurseries growing saplings that cannot be planted in time: once they pass three years, tree root systems can be irreparably damaged by replanting.  

This is exactly what happened in March 2020. One of the major UK commercial tree nurseries, Maelor Forest Nurseries, near Wrexham, told The Times that two years previously they had planted 800,000 UK-sourced pedunculate oak acorns in anticipation of government financial support to encourage planting.

However, demand failed to materialise as many landowners believed that new subsidies due in 2024 would be more lucrative than those currently on offer. The nursery also blamed challenging bureaucracy and an overly complicated tree consultation process, for deterring landowners especially in England and Wales. This is borne out by low 2019-2020 government planting figures: 13,460 hectares, of which 80 percent was in Scotland. This is less than half the year target promised.

With lockdown making it additionally challenging to care for the tree stock until the commencement of the new planting season in the autumn, Jamie Dewhurst of J&A Growers, near Warwick, estimated that the industry as a whole would be forced to destroy a record 750,000 saplings: “There is no market for them, so they go up in flames”.

Protection

James Murray White, Cambridge-based environmental campaigner and tree lover, said: “Reading those words, filled me with horror. They were basically announcing a crime of ecocide. This felt like too much, especially after seeing the destruction of Crackley Woods, in the path of HS2”.

After reading the dramatic article, Murray White began to consider what he could do to prevent this new unprecedented environmental threat. 

Murray White is the co-founder of the rewilding group, Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (XRR), and over the previous six months had built up an impressive network of around ten thousand folk across the UK passionate about rewilding and related issues, such as access to land and different approaches to conservation ecology.

After reading this news, seeing tiny self-seeded oak saplings protected by the canopy of older mature oaks during a walk in the ancient Swithland Woods in Leicestershire galvanised him to act, trusting that he could find responsible homes for the saplings through his networks.

Logistics

He called up the nurseries and negotiated a symbolic price of 22p per tree for an order of 1000 oak saplings: a single three-year oak tree can cost up to eight pounds when sold commercially.  

Working with Bell Selkie, XRR co-founder, they quickly set up a crowd-funding campaign and within three months raised over £8000 from 247 supporters to buy 30,000 trees. They also had some ‘high profile’ endorsement from authors such as Robert MacFarlane and Lucy Jones, as well as folk musician, Sam Lee.

Inspired by this action, the nurseries say they have had other orders for trees, although none on this scale. One group, Cambridge and Ely XR, set up their own crowdfunding campaign and successfully raised funds to buy 3000 oaks for local planting.

The Save the Oaks campaign gathered a volunteer support group including coppicing experts and woodland ecologists, to identify community groups and individual landowners across the country willing to responsibly plant the oaks.

There are also managing the considerable logistical challenge of getting trees from the nurseries to five distribution sites where groups and individuals will be able to collect trees and plan their planting schedule. In just two weeks since beginning to advertise, they have found homes for 6000 oak saplings, although they realise that they have some way to go.  

Resilience 

The group also has plans to buy land to establish a community rewilding site which may be able to house some of the trees. They feel that a significant new woodland planted during the tumultuous year that is 2020 would be a fitting memorial to the humans that have died from Covid-19, the ash trees currently falling to ash die-back, and the trees felled for the HC2 project as well as other ancient trees fighting for survival around the country.

The group is also hosting a number of online educational events to raise awareness about the campaign. The first, on the evening of 4 August, is a talk with Dr James Canton about his book, The Oak Papers, the story of his personal healing journey and the long established human relationship with oak trees. Watch this space for other events coming soon.

Murray White is hoping to meet the little saplings that he has saved as soon as the commercial nurseries are fully open again. He feels that his small positive action in the midst of a global crisis is a radical act of love, and highlights the urgent importance of regenerative action, even as we are surrounded by destruction.  

He highlights how the oak tree has long been a symbol of resilience which can guide us through uncertain times: in the words of poet, George Herbert, storms make the oaks grow deeper roots.

Support

If you are interested in becoming an oak guardian, and receiving some of these treasured English oaks for free, please first take a moment to consider if this is right for you at this time.

We are looking for guardians to plant trees with the awareness that trees are sentient and in reverence for all that has passed this year in the human and more-than human world.

We are especially interested in supporting woodland projects connected to Covid-19 remembrance; in work to “gap up” an existing community woodland ravaged by ash dieback; in planting woodland near to woods destroyed by HS2, as well inas supporting local councils that are already committed to tree planting. We are also interested in supporting woodland planted by schools, or other institutions where it can be part of an educational process.

We also want to know that you can provide all the aftercare these trees need for several years so that they can thrive. For that reason, we don’t advocate guerrilla planting these oaks.

Finally, pedunculate oaks grow well in most conditions, but we are happy to provide support in identifying whether your location is suitable. 

These Authors

Lucy Michaels is an academic and investigative journalist working for international environmental and animal welfare organisations in the UK and Middle East.  

James Murray-White is a writer, filmmaker and activist. Once a freelance environment journalist in the Middle East, his current occupations include filming & walking within the natural world, issues of place and belonging, planting trees and promoting rewilding. 

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