The Government’s Tree Champion will help devise a new English Tree Strategy for the next 25 years, with a public consultation to help shape the plans to be launched later this year, and
Sir William believes there is land across the whole region that can deliver more trees to help mitigate climate change.
The North Yorkshire estate owner, who is the chairman of both the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and The National Forest Company, said: “Yorkshire has the advantage of being in the Northern Forest area and the Government has contributed £5.7m to that this year. That’s just a start but it helps to get it going.”
Led by the Woodland Trust, the Government’s Northern Forest project began last March. Some 50 million trees are intended to form a mixed broadleaf woodland, covering a 120-mile stretch of forest between Liverpool and Hull, via Leeds, over the next 25 years.
About 650,000 trees have been planted as part of the project so far, with significant funding also coming from the Forestry Commission.
Look beyond Northern Forest
Sir William said: “What we also need to do is look across the whole region. The boundaries of the Northern Forest are slightly vague and therefore I think we need to be looking at the whole of our region to see where we can plant trees.”
The independent Committee on Climate Change recently claimed that 30,000 hectares of land per year is needed for woodland creation in the fight against climate breakdown, while earlier this month Prime Minister Theresa May committed to a legally binding target for Britain to become net zero in greenhouse gases by 2050.
Sir William said trees are not the entire solution but can play an important part.
“Tree planting is just part of the whole mélange of different things we have to do to try to look after our environment. Trees aren’t the whole answer but are one of the solutions and one of the things we can actively do,” he said.
Protect landscapes too
Sir William acknowledged that there is also a careful balance to be struck between tree planting and protecting the character of Yorkshire’s landscapes.
“We must, as well as planting trees, look after Yorkshire’s landscapes. We are incredibly lucky we live in a fabulous part of England and planting trees are part of the mix. It should be done in a way that is beneficial to the landscape, so for any planting at scale it is important it’s in the right place.”
Big landowners have role to play
In his role as Tree Champion, a position he first assumed in June last year, he said he had held “positive” talks with Yorkshire Water, one of the region’s largest landowners, about its contribution to tree planting, as well as Network Rail, which owns vast strips of land skirting rail tracks nationally.
“One of the things I’m trying to achieve is wildlife links and of course railways are great links,” Sir William said.
“The railways have to get thousands of people to work everyday and they have to do that without disruption and safely, so a lot of places on railway lines aren’t suitable but there is a lot of land that is suitable. It’s trying to get that balance, so that we get what is suitable to be planted, planted.”
Farmland has big potential
Poor quality farmland that does not generate profits for farmers presents one of the biggest opportunities for boosting tree cover, he said, but he cautioned that this did not mean huge swathes of farmland being taken out of production.
Sir William said: “The main thing is, anything is enough of a contribution. Individual hedgerow trees will each benefit the landscape, they all play their part.
“If a farmer has a small area of a field that is a bit wet and not suitable for growing any arable crop, that would be excellent to get planted. If lots of farmers planted one or two acres, it will add up.
“But we need to make sure the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme encourages farmers to do this.
“We need to look at managing and supporting our trees and woods in the same way we look to manage our farmland.”
Freeing up land is Northern Forest challenge
Reaching agreements to release land for new trees is the Northern Forest project’s “key challenge”, said Simon Mageean, programme director at the Woodland Trust.
“There is enough more marginal farmland to do this in the Northern Forest but funding it is only part of the equation. We need willing landowners and, crucially, a mutually beneficial environment in which to operate,” said Mr Mageean, who acknowledged that farmers and landowners also have Brexit uncertainty to contend with.
Estimates suggest that once established, the Northern Forest, will be capable of sequestering at least 7.5 million tonnes of carbon.