Trees: How to be a tree nationalist

The prevailing argument over planting trees native to Britain is a very modern debate, as Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, explains.

"England shall bide till Judgment Tide,/ By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!"

Was Rudyard Kipling the first "tree nationalist"? No well-turned phrases about sycamore or the sweet chestnuts he would have known in his corner of the Weald appear in "A Tree Song". The trees which moved the poet were the quintessentially English - oak of the clay, ash of the loam, thorn of the Down.

So Kipling would have understood the modern debate about planting only trees native to Britain, or, better still, native to a particular locality. Nor would he have jibbed at the label "tree nationalist". It might discomfort the politically correct but it is a much livelier description than being known as an advocate of "trees of British provenance".

The arguments of the tree nationalists contain linguistic echoes of uglier nationalisms, with talk of "genetic pollution" and targeted eradication of non-native species. It is anti-foreigner stuff, but thankfully only trees are at issue.

Full tree citizenship is extended to those varieties of trees established in Britain when the land bridge with the rest of the continent disappeared tens of thousands of years ago. Thus Britain has only one true pine, the Scots pine, plus yew and juniper.

All the other needle and cone bearing trees which provide the mainstay of the timber and pulp business are foreigners. So too is the sycamore, though few trees have proved as rapaciously well-adapted to British conditions. It provides hard, close-grained timber and is most famously used in violin backs. Sweet chestnuts were introduced into Essex by the Romans, who loved the fruit, and the majestic London plane is a hybrid of American and Oriental varieties.

Concern about native trees is a relatively recent phenomenon - part of the great green awakening of the past couple of decades. It certainly did not bother Capability Brown and the other landscape gardeners of the 18th century who made liberal use of foreign stock. A lot of oak planted over the last 200 years was imported from Germany or Holland because it was believed it would grow better. Exotics such as cedars of Lebanon, redwoods and cypresses were introduced and Scots pine were planted across heathy areas of southern and east England - way beyond the tree's natural patch. Consequently, the tree-scapes we see today, though familiar, are very often non-native.

So isn't it rather late to argue for tree nationalism? The Woodland Trust thinks not. The charity cares for more than 38,000 acres of woodland where it plants only trees of British origin. For example, at Park Farm, an 180-acre site with the planned National Forest in the Midlands, the Trust is planting over 100,000 oak trees grown from seed collected locally in Leicestershire.

The story of the oak is a good illustration of the Trust's case that using native stock is a surer way of preserving a balance between trees and the wildlife they support. Green looper moth caterpillars feed on the young leaves of the oak and caterpillars in turn are important food for birds such as blue tits.

"If the blue tit's breeding cycle is keyed into the expectation there will be green looper caterpillars to feed to its young, then the time when the oaks come into leaf is vital," explained Richard Smithers, a Trust ecologist. "Trees of different origin come into leaf and fruit at slightly different times of year. Stock from the continent tends to come into leaf two or three weeks earlier than native trees."

Motorway drivers may have noticed that hawthorn bushes planted on the embankments often blossom a fortnight or so earlier than older hedgerow bushes. They underline Mr Smithers' case. Most motorway hawthorns were imported from elsewhere in Europe and follow a slightly different cycle.

The previous government set a target of doubling the UK's woodland within the next 50 years. The Trust is pressing for the use of native stock wherever possible. It is not trying to turn the clock back in most woodland, but where sycamore or the hated rhododendron invades ancient woodland, such as the oak woods of Snowdonia, it is attacked. "Rhododendron bashing" is the most popular task of Trust volunteers.

One of the purist exercises in tree nationalism is underway in the Highlands of Scotland with attempts to regenerate the great Forest of Caledon. Isolated remnants remain in places like Glen Affric and in the glens of the Cairngorms. But though magical in themselves these oases of Scots pines contain few new trees. Most are over 150 years old. "Granny" pines of more than twice that age are producing fertile cones but the saplings are eaten by red deer.

The best hope for regeneration of forest lies in culling the excessive deer numbers. On the 77,5000-acre Mar Lodge Estate on Deeside, an ambitious cull instigated by the new owners, the National Trust for Scotland, is already showing the job can be done without erecting miles of anti-deer fences. The fences are a deadly hazard to the rare capercaille and blackcock.

The Forestry Commission has changed radically since the days when it was identified solely with blanketing the hillsides with sitka and Norway spruce. Though pursuit of the best commercial return still dominates the choice of trees for its forests in south-west Scotland - and that means the American sitka spruce - elsewhere planting often reflects "social values". That means broadleaf trees or Scots pine. Subsidies to private growers also favour native woodland.

Dig deeper into "tree nationalism" however and more philosophical questions are raised. As Donald Thompson, head of the Commission's forest practice division pointed out, Norway spruce was marching steadily west towards Britain and had only about another 20 miles when the Channel was formed. Man carried it over but why should humans be regarded as any less a part of the natural distribution process than squirrels, birds or the wind?

And more perplexing still, what is "nativeness"? According to Mr Thompson, it is "really a human perception based on what people regarded as `not natural' to a particular place. But plants are busily trying to get everywhere, and trees are no different".

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas