Planting Trees in the Uplands? There’s an idea….

Jonathan Billinger [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Billinger [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I was so excited at the thought of OPatz going to live in the woods, foraging for mushrooms and curing  badger hams , that I forgot to check what was actually said earlier this week, in relation to flooding and re-wilding.

Here is what Lord Rooker said in the Lords on the 23rd January (my bold): “Weather events happen with or without climate change, let us be clear about that. The national risk register covers the lot. Two years ago, drought was a key crisis. We have to think about the serious volatility of changes in climate. The Thames barrier has a limited life. I had already put this in my notes, and I was really worried when I heard yesterday about the delay. The Thames barrier is sinking, and we are going to wait until 2070 before we start having a look at it. Flood defences are more than walls and dams: they should be environmental as well. I commend to the Government—I am sure that someone has read it—the major article by George Monbiot last week. It appeared first on Tuesday in the Guardian and then on two pages in the Mail on Sunday. True, the latter newspaper used it to attack the EU but the article was the same in both. George Monbiot highlighted the methods for preventing floods that UK scientists have being using for years in the tropics—planting trees in the hills to save and protect communities down stream from flooding. Here, we pay farmers to grub up trees and hedges and plant the hills with pretty grass and use sheep to maintain the chocolate box image, and then we wonder why we have floods where we should not really have them and which we could prevent if we took the advice. Monbiot says that water sinks into soil under trees at 67 times the rate that it sinks in under grass, so why are we not doing that in the UK in areas that we know flood unnecessarily?

To me, this is not Lord Rooker extolling the wonders of re-wilding. What he is saying is that trees in the uplands are better than grass for soaking up excess rainwater. Nothing to disagree with here. It’s just not an exhortation to re-wild, merely to plant trees. In fact, Rooker’s criticism of landscape management for aesthetics could be seen as equally antipathetical to Monbiot’s dreams of  wild beasts, and more akin to Opatz’ purely utilitarian approach to the land.

This reminded me of another story about planting trees in the uplands. It was Nigel Lawson (he of the Global Warming Policy Foundation) who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1988, did two things. He had created the Lawson Boom, which was bloating to epic proportions in late 1988, thanks to changes to mortgage tax relief. Secondly he abolished Schedule B tax relief on tree planting.

This was a tax avoidance scheme used by celebrities (Terry Wogan and Status Quo were often mentioned, though I suspect the knew little or nothing about it), the rich and powerful, involving planting trees in the uplands, as a tax dodge. Trees were being planted in, amongst other places, the Flow Country of Caithness, one of the UK’s most valuable natural treasures. They wouldn’t grow as it was too wet, but preparing the ground to plant them did irreparable damage to the wildlife and landscape.

The whole fiasco culminated in a bust up between the Nature Conservancy Council and OPatz’ late uncle-in-law, the previously most awful Environment Secretary Britain has ever Seen, Sir Nick Ridley (now relegated to second place on this particular league table). You can guess who won.

To me this indicates that wherever large scale Government-supported tree planting schemes are waved around as a panacea for something, beware of the law of unintended consequences.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in flooding, Forestry, Forestry Commission, Owen Paterson, rewilding, uplands and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Planting Trees in the Uplands? There’s an idea….

  1. David Dunlop says:

    Thankee, M’Lud. I’d like offences by Ye Olde Forestry Commission in my then neighbours turf in Galloway to also be taken into account and would refer you to the late Derek Ratcliffe’s New Naturalist on Galloway & The Borders in evidence. “Plus de la change, plus de la meme chose” as we say in Cloughfern.

  2. Yes, it’s hard to imagine (the truly awful) Paterson genuinely supporting rewilding. Good post, great blog!

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Tim, I am glad you liked it.

      No I don’t think Paterson has a clue about wilding.

      Miles King


  3. This is beautifully written, the government could do with such quality thinking. Thank you

  4. Miles,
    Good observations. There are some unforeseen consequences involved.
    Offered incentives to plant trees, most farmers will gladly accept, so long as they can site the new trees on their most unproductive land, which also frequently happen to be the best existing habitat. We found this frequently where I work!

    Nothing like the scale of the flow country, but still we know that our environment is rarely lost to massive impacts, but through the slow attrition and multiple cuts inflicted by “localised impacts”, the thousands of cropping decisions, planning decisions, felling decisions, ploughing decisions, draining decisions, polluting decisions made every day on small pieces of land and water countrywide.

    I’ll read some of your other posts now

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