Election Blog 2: Floods and Tree-planting

It has been a bit of a surprise to see the environment figure so prominently in the election campaign over the last week or so – usually it’s so far down the list of priorities, or perhaps more accurately the list of issues that generally interest the media, that it never breaks through the surface. Thanks in part to Boris Johnson’s decision to hold a General Election in December, it was the terrible flooding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire which grabbed our attention.

The focus of that attention was Fishlake, a ominously named village neat Thorne – of the notorious Thorne and Hatfield Moors – the large lowland raised bog which was mined for horticultural peat despite a long running campaign to save what was left of it for nature. I have seen suggestions that Fishlake was originally also part of the Raised Bogs of this area, which might explain its name (the lake left after the peat was dug out) and its low lying status. It’s still not clear exactly why Fishlake flooded this year, and not in 2007 when there was a much larger flood in South Yorkshire. But what was clear was how badly the Johnson team failed to react to the flood, turning up to meet the victims over a week late, and looking, as ever, as if he was only seeking a PR opportunity.

There were the inevitable calls to “Dredge The Rivers” from farmers whose farmland had disappeared under flood water. And the conspiracy theory – from the 2014 Somerset Levels floods  that it was the EU which had banned Blighty from dredging also reappeared and did the rounds. That the dredging went ahead in Somerset despite those dastardly EU dredge-police, seems to have passed that particular group of conspiracy mongers by. Quite apart from the fact that it is only likely to help in very limited circumstances, whether there will be any money available for the extremely expensive practice of dredging in post-Brexit Britain, remains to be seen.

Another interesting change in the debate has happened as a result of Brexit, namely around calls by farmers to be paid to hold flood water on their own land. It’s not clear why all farmers – especially ones which farm in the floodplain – should be expected to be paid when their farmland floods. After all, flooding is a perfectly natural event  – just as natural as, say, when it doesn’t rain for weeks on end, as happened last year. Both have an effect on the production of crops. Should farmers be paid for every incident when nature affects the growth of crops – such as a pest outbreak, or disease?

It needs to be thought through carefully, but in principle, the means for paying farmers to provide “public goods” like reducing downstream flooding of urban areas, was going to be made available through the new Agriculture Bill – you remember, the one which nearly made it through Parliament before Boris Johnson closed it down so he could have this election. Whether it comes back in anything like the same shape or form is debateable. The opportunity for farmers to be paid to reduce downstream flooding may turn out to have been just a phantom.

The NFU, bless them, were arguing for payments for flood storage, upstream catchment management, and dredging – the belt and braces approach. If the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss get into serious positions of power in the next Government, they will be looking to make a quick deal with the US allowing in their super cheap food. In which case all of this will be academic as farmers will be unable to compete on price, however many rivers are dredged. But the impact of Climate Chaos is now really starting to make itself clearly heard. Potatoes are rotting in the ground, because there has been so much rain as to make it impossible to lift them – or they are so wet that its preferable to leave them in the ground, rather than risk introducing rot to those already in stores.  I suspect pictures of farms surrounded by thousands of acres of flood water in Lincolnshire will become a regular sight. And what was once regarded as the best agricultural land in Britain will be grazing marsh, then salt marsh, then intertidal mud. Lincolnshire farmers may shout “build the wall” but it’s not going to happen. Still, all that’s for another election in a few years time.

On Friday last week we were treated to an auction between the Tories the LibDems and the SNP as to who could promise to plant the most number of Trees. I suppose this qualifies as an environmental story, albeit one from the Ladybird book of environmental activities. It’s easy to set targets for tree-planting and sound like you’re doing something for the environment. Michael Gove on Saturday’s Today programme pointed out that it was a Tory Government that had achieved the lofty heights of 30,000ha of new trees planted in a year, back in 1989.  What he failed to mention was that this was mainly thanks to planting commercial conifer plantations on the globally important peat bogs of the Caithness Flow Country in northern Scotland. Nor did he mention that it was fuelled by tax breaks for millionaires.

I was reminded of a small but significant action at the time, when Friends of the Earth Scotland arranged for a group of kilted Scotsmen (with Piper) to head down to Buckinghamshire and plant some conifers on Terry Wogan’s lawn, as a protest. Also worth mentioning at this point is that the “Environment Secretary” at the time of this environmental outrage, was none other than Viscount Matt Ridley’s uncle, Nick Ridley. There must be something in the water under the family estate, leaking out from all that coal.

Strangely this cautionary tale of the dangers of over enthusiastic tree planting targets did not make it into the coverage. Gove did make a rather pathetic claim that the EU was to blame for the Government not meeting its tree-planting targets though. Again, somehow he managed to ignore the fact that it was his predecessor Owen Paterson who had decided not to transfer across the maximum allowed amount from direct farm subsidies (Pillar one of the CAP) into Pillar 2 (which includes grants for tree-planting) back in 2013.

The Tories have claimed they will plant 30 million trees a year, and the Lib Dems 60 million! at 1500 a hectare that translates into 20,000ha a year for the Tories and 40,000ha for the LibDems. The SNP pointed out that last year only 1400ha of new plantation was achieved in England, compared with 11,200ha in Scotland. Taking individual responsibility is a key tenet of both Conservative and Liberal political philosophy – and that’s been reflected in the Tory attitude to tree-planting – hand out small packs of trees to individuals and community groups and let them find places where they can be planted. This usually means trees end up being planted in the wrong place, where they can damage or destroy wildlife and historic features  – or that they die for lack of water or poor soil. The same problem applies to small scale woodland planting supported by farm subsidies or grants. Farmers tend to plant trees where they won’t interfere with cropping or grazing – and these can often be the last places on the farm where wildlife survives – the scruffy corners, or small patches of agriculturally unproductive grassland – which happens to be rich in wildlife.

Good places to plant trees (or even better allow them to develop naturally) are in the upper catchments of rivers. Add in a few beavers and you create, for very little public cost, wooded wetlands which capture water and release slowly into the downstream rivers. The perfect was to reduce the risk of flooding. Knepp provides a very neat example of how an upper catchment willow carr can develop on former arable land.

PS Congratulations to Craig Bennett for being selected as the next Chief of the Wildlife Trusts.



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 2019 general election, farm subsidies, farm tax breaks, flooding, tree planting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Election Blog 2: Floods and Tree-planting

  1. Mick Canning says:

    Knepp is amazing! I’m just finishing the book.

  2. Steve Preston says:

    Well said Miles. Clearly a surprise to see environmental issues on the campaign trail. All too easy to see why that should now be. With all the talk of re-nationalisation I do wonder if this should also apply to the tree planting schemes envisaged by the politicians, especially those right of centre left. In essence such a drastic and long term change of land use is effectively nationalising the land for public benefits. I’m afraid that’s probably needed to get the right trees in the right place at the right scale. Still it’s not as if current subsidy payments can’t be redirected in future in or out of the EU. On cheap US food… interestingly US farmers are also heavily supported even in their free market economy.

  3. ISTR reading about a change in policy under the Cameron (?) Government, whereby the expected return required for flood protection projects was raised from 1:1 to 6:1. Is my memory correct here?

  4. Roger Cartwright says:

    Brilliant – just about sums up the present situation, hope you don’t mind me sharing? The more people that read this the better, particularly at this time – watch this space

  5. Relatedly, how effectively do mature trees sequester carbon, for instance by adding leaf mould to the soil?

    • Miles King says:

      Hi Paul – there’s no simple answer, it depends on what kind of tree and how it’s growing. Most of the carbon in a forest is in the standing trees rather than the soil. So in order for a plantation to really capture carbon long term, the trees either needed to be left to keep growing, or the timber be used in a way that it doesn’t decompose or be burnt.

  6. gwilwren says:

    Thanks Miles To deal with the climate emergency Somerset will be consulting on a County wide Climate Change Framework and underlying District plans. They will cover the whole gamut from carbon sequestration, buildings, transport through to land management. . At a meeting on Monday I did point out the problems with a tree planting free for all and that natural regen and lighter touch management would be more affordable and effective. The consultation will be in January so I urge you and your followers to have a look.

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  8. Aljos Farjon says:

    Dear Miles,
    Well, of course now that I read your blog on a.o.t. tree planting AFTER the elections of 12 December, we only have to watch the Tories on their promises. An easy task, they won’t keep them. To paraphrase the famous words of an American Indian Chief: “The Tory government made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they only kept one. They promised to sacrifice the environment to economic growth, and they sacrificed it.”
    Planting 30 million trees? Their track record over the last decade shows that they fell gravely short of even the much more modest promises made earlier, a fact the Woodland Trust never got tired to complain about. The WT, of course, has its own immodest promises and targets to plant trees and they are doing better on keeping them. Is this good?.
    Unfortunately, the Climate Change Crisis (I prefer to call it the Climate Change Scare) has prevented calm and clear thinking: climate and environment are now synonymous. We must plant all those trees to achieve a carbon neutral Britain. This is a fallacy, but since the media have swallowed it as the truth, everyone believes it.
    Here are a few scientific facts to consider:
    1) CO2 is an absolute requirement for green plant growth; it is not a pollutant. We can expect trees to grow a bit faster when more of this gas becomes available in the atmosphere.
    2) The carbon is retained in the accumulating wood while the oxygen is released, which heterotrophic organisms need to burn their organic food.
    3) Carbon storage in trees is effected AS LONG AS TREES GROW, it stops when they die. In a mature, undisturbed wood there is a balance between wood accumulation and wood decay and the latter process returns carbon to the atmosphere, where it combines with oxygen to form CO2.
    4) In tropical forests, no carbon is ‘stored’ in the soil, the entire cycle is above the ground and therefore a natural tropical rainforest does not contribute to carbon storage.
    5) In cooler climates there is potential for carbon storage in the soil, but the amounts are minimal unless there is water logging and peat formation. Even then, much of the carbon returns to the atmosphere. When peat is subsequently buried under sediment it can eventually become coal, storing carbon away over geological time.
    6) If plantation forestry results in timber for buildings etc. that carbon is potentially stored for longer. No one believes that most of the planted trees will find such uses, the wood will find less permanent uses (e.g. paper, cardboard), part of which will be recycled, but this, too is a solution with diminishing results as far as carbon storage is concerned.
    7) Planting trees is therefore only a remedy of temporary value, unless we continue planting until this island is covered in trees from coast to coast. Perhaps there is an assumption that by then we no longer use carbon for energy?

    Meanwhile, we will have ended up replacing often valuable habitats for biodiversity (with ‘climate’ another buzz word become fashionable) with plantation ‘forests’ of non-native conifers or plantings of broadleaves of the kind you’ll see in motorway intersections; both are virtual ecological deserts. Native woodland cannot be planted, it has to create itself and it will: see my article in British Wildlife 30 (4): 177-185 (2019).

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