Stick Figures - The Danger of Playing the Numbers Game With Trees

06/06/2016 10:48 | Updated 06 June 2016

What's the difference between a tree and a tree?
Potentially a lot. Let me illustrate.

Meet Greta*. Greta is a Beech tree nestled in a patch of woodland on the steep slope of Borough Hill in Leicestershire. Greta's trunk has a girth of about 4 metres, and she stands 30m tall with branches reaching out several metres in all directions. She qualifies as a 'veteran tree' not only because of her age but because her huge frame has developed fissures and hollows that provide ideal habitats for birds, mammals and insects.


Greta provides habitat and food for a family of bats, a little owl, more than 100 species of insects, 200 types of lichen and algae, and several rare species of fungi. Each year she absorbs 16kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When Greta finally dies she will leave a rich legacy to the landscape as her massive frame gradually rots back into the soil, providing habitat and food for a host of other important insects, plants, algae and fungi as she does so.


Compare Greta with Rowan. I love Rowan - she has a special significance for me as I planted her to mark one month since the birth of my daughter of that name. Perhaps when my daughter has a family of her own she will be able to visit this tree, and it will be big enough to picnic under, or to provide berries for jelly.

But perhaps not. I am realistic, and many things could happen to Rowan in the next few years while she is still a vulnerable sapling. A drought or flood could finish her off before she becomes big enough to cope with harsh conditions. A deer could trot past and chew her to oblivion. Even if Rowan does make it to maturity, when my grandchildren rest under her canopy in 50 years time she will still be providing a fraction of the benefits to the landscape that Greta does already. There will be no hollows for bats or owls, no rotting wood to support insects and fungi, and the amount of carbon dioxide she takes in from the air will be trivial in comparison to Greta.

Both trees are important. Indeed, without newly planted trees like Rowan we will not have the Gretas of the future. They are not the same, however. The names I have given them here reflects that they are unique personalities at different stages of long and complex lives.

In policy and planning documents, however, they are both just 'trees'. That is all. And this is dangerous.

Government planting figures may sound encouraging and paint a rosy picture of the future of the UK's trees and woods, but figures can be very misleading. Even if the number of trees felled is taken off to create a figure for net increase in trees, it counts each tree equally whether it is a Greta or a Rowan. Trees whose loss is noted as a 'felling' are likely to be mature trees. Newly planted trees are no replacement for these - even in greater numbers. They simply cannot provide the same benefits to society, and will not for decades.

Furthermore, the figures do not tell the full story. Where are these new trees being planted? Who if anyone will monitor them and ensure they survive through their vulnerable early years?


This is why we should also be wary of compensation planting figures for trees and woods lost due to development. If 500 trees are planted on a motorway verge as compensation for even a small patch of woodland that was a refuge for wildlife and a playground for local children, those benefits have not been replaced. A tree becomes more than just a tree with age, and a wood is more than the sum of the trees it contains. Figures on a balance sheet simply can't tell that story.

The Woodland Trust believes that ancient woodland cannot be replaced, nor its benefits recreated in any meaningful way. The same could be said of any woods or trees that have value to people not simply because they are trees, but because of the trees they are. Planting new trees does not make up for felling those that we have, whose roots reach into our landscape, our lives and our history.


If we want the culture to change and the true value of trees to be recognised we need to speak up for the trees in our lives and challenge the status quo. Add your voice to the call for a Charter for Trees, Woods and People by sharing a story of a tree or wood that has a special meaning to you at

*Names have been changed. Or made up.