15th July 2016
Valuing and protecting veteran trees – a champion in Westminster
‘Soil is one of my special interests’ declared Rebecca Pow MP, who spoke at the Ancient Tree Forum’s annual conference, held this July in Dorset, in her role as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees. This was music to the ears of the Ancient Tree Forum, which sees healthy soil as a vital component in the conservation of veteran trees.
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was set up in October 2015 to discuss how to better value and protect the nation’s veteran and special trees, as well as to explore the threats faced by ancient woodland, and the steps needed to protect it. APPGs are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, but often involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. The Woodland Trust acts as secretariat for the APPG on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees, and members of the ATF’s Policy and Consultation group now attend the group’s meetings, with a view to ensuring that the value of ancient trees is fully recognised, and that their protection and appropriate management is promoted and supported.
Soil as an ecosystem
Healthy soil sustains and protects trees and other life above ground. The importance of soil – and the micro-organisms and mycorrhizal fungi it supports – for ancient and other veteran trees has long been emphasised by the ATF (soil and ancient tree roots were the topic of a presentation given to the Arboricultural Association’s conference last year by ATF co-optee and Woodland Trust ancient tree specialist Jill Butler). It was therefore reassuring to hear that Rebecca Pow is championing healthy soils at Westminster, and had encouraged the Environmental Audit Select Committee she sits on to do a soil enquiry: ‘It came out with shocking conclusions about how much we’re eroding our soils and not looking after them.’
Rebecca, who is MP for Taunton Deane, explained at the conference that she had raised the issue of soils the previous day with DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). ‘I got in a question about soils…asking for them to be considered as ecosystems rather than a growth medium, and Rory Stewart, the minister, has said he will meet with me to talk about it.’ Rebecca had acknowledged the significance of soil for our oldest trees, at a House of Commons debate in December 2015, when she said ‘We are discussing not only the trees themselves, but the soils underneath them, too. The soils have built up over centuries and, just like the woods, cannot be recreated. The soils are equivalent to those in the rainforest and are just as precious. They contain genetic material and biodiversity that could be the key to life-saving treatments or combating pests’.
Following Rebecca’s talk at the conference, Ted Green, the ATF’s founder, invited her to see the country’s first ‘forest soil reserve’, declared by the Crown Estates at Windsor. This has been set up, he explains, ‘to raise the importance of our beleaguered soils, and form a baseline for information and study when science catches up’.
Planning legislation and the threat to ancient and veteran trees
The ATF’s conference delegates learnt that another key issue Rebecca Pow had addressed through the December 2015 debate was the need for the government to look at section 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): ‘That’s the bit of planning legislation that allows for the destruction of ancient woodland and veteran trees’ she explained, ‘if the need for and the benefit of the development in that location clearly outweighs the loss. So what it means is always the development takes the priority and never the trees, which is something we’ve allowed to get into our culture – we haven’t got a value on these things. And hundreds of ancient woodland and tree sites are being threatened. Since this piece of legislation came into operation in 2012, 40 ancient woodland sites have suffered loss or damage and many others are threatened.’
This issue is due to be addressed at the next meeting of the APPG, taking place this Autumn. It is hoped that Gavin Barwell, the new Housing and Planning Minister, will attend. Rebecca Pow is calling for the NPPF to be amended to better protect ancient woodlands and trees, and for better data on threats and losses.
A register of trees of national special interest
Another vital initiative which the ATF hopes to progress through the APPG is a register of Trees of National Special Interest (TNSI) which would identify the uniquely valuable and irreplaceable individual trees or collections of trees which by age, size, character, rarity, or associations with historic events or people, are agreed to be of national special interest biologically or culturally.
A register of TNSI would draw together in one central location the information about nationally important trees and thereby increase awareness of their value. The ATF, together with the Woodland Trust and the Tree Register of the British Isles, are campaigning for such a register and believe that a national government body should be the gatekeeper of the register and the criteria against which trees would be assessed for inclusion. At the ATF’s conference, Rebecca Pow expressed an interest in finding out more about the register, and the ATF hopes to raise the issue at the next APPG meeting.
Trees and environmental services
Rebecca also touched on the topic of environmental services provided by trees, for example in relation to flooding and climate change: ‘The whole subject of trees is an area that needs to be looked at much more in all departments because trees, whether they’re ancient or not, come into so many areas and can help us in so many ways.’
Getting our messages across
Perhaps even more useful than Rebecca Pow’s presentation at our conference, was the chance for informal discussion afterwards, whilst visiting the grounds of the Minterne estate in West Dorset (pictured above).
The APPG is an important forum through which the ATF now has a chance to influence and engage MPs and Peers. During this time of fast political change, it is particularly important that we use this opportunity, and our contacts with politicians and other decision-makers, to raise awareness of the enormous value of ancient and other veteran trees and the need to protect them as best we can.