The significance of the new Charter for Trees

This November, on the 800th anniversary of the signing of this ancient document, a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People is being launched by The Woodland Trust.

"Every freeman shall have, within his own woods, ayries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, eagles and herons: and shall have also the honey that is found within his woods" - this charming extract is from The Charter of the Forest, which was created in 1217 when references to forests made in the 1215 version of the Magna Carta were put into a separate charter.

Ahead of a new charter's publication, the trust’s PR manager Steve Marsh explains: "Last year we announced that, along with other organisations, we wanted to help develop a new charter and we wanted it to reflect how the public felt about trees and woodlands. So we started gathering stories and messages from people all over the UK – in total we collected 70,000 stories, such as childhood memories of trees. We put them together and pulled out some key themes upon which we designed the charter’s 10 key principles."

They include:

  • Planting for the future
  • Celebrating the cultural impact of trees 
  • A thriving forestry sector that delivers for the UK. This particular principle notes that careers in woodland management, arboriculture and the timber supply chain should be attractive choices and provide development opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses.
  • Better protection for important trees and woods
  • Enhancing new developments with trees
  • Understanding and using the natural health benefits of trees 
  • Access to trees for everyone 
  • Addressing threats to woods and trees through good management
  • Strengthening landscapes with woods and trees

Marsh reveals: "We are officially launching the charter on November 6 at Lincoln Castle, where there’s a copy of the original charter of the forest."

Among the 70 organisations involved in the formation of the charter are the Arboricultural Association and The Ancient Tree Forum. Other members of the charter steering group include the RHS, the Campaign to Protect the Rural Environment, the National Trust, NHS Forest, The Crown Estate and Trees for Cities.

Evidently, some big names have united to form what they hope will be a loud voice that is acknowledged by Government. But Marsh adds that it’s not just Government that they hope to get through to – it’s people as well, "because we are losing touch with nature. More woods are under threat in the UK than there ever have been before. And we are not planting enough trees. We are trying to look into this. As a country, we are on the cusp of deforestation."

It is also hoped that the UK’s arboriculture sector will directly benefit from the campaign. Matt Larsen-Daw, the trust’s leader for the project, says: "Firstly, I hope it creates a better public understanding of the existence of the sector and the importance of the work that it does, particularly around the maintenance and care of trees in the public domain – which people often misunderstand and don’t have a full understanding of why it’s important."

The Arboriculture Association also hopes that the need for the better management of trees gains attention. It asserts in a statement that: "This is a great opportunity to promote the sustainable management of trees and our members and the experienced professionals within the arboriculture industry who are essential to their proper maintenance. With the public aware and supportive of the benefits of trees, it’s now crucial that we help them understand the science of trees and their environment." It adds: "The Association will continue to do everything it can to support, promote and contribute to making this fantastic initiative a success."

Larsen-Daw also believes that the new charter will help raise the profile of the arboriculture sector as a career choice. "We are already facing shortages of qualified professionals. But I think that a lot of people don’t realise that there’s a whole sector open to them that mightbe very attractive." Finally, he hopes to get out "very strongly" the message that there is a need for local networks of expertise. Larsen-Daw says: "We need real collaboration at local level. Volunteers, members of local authorities, professionals all working together to make sure that things are not done in a ‘cowboy’ way. And, also, to ensure that the issues are identified early enough for professionals in the sector to have an effective impact on the local landscape. We need eyes and ears on the ground, interacting with tree officers."

The Ancient Tree Forum agrees that the charter should bring people together to inspire them to act in their communities. Vice-chairman Caroline Davis says: "Local people and communities are often best placed to take action practically, or in making their views known, and effectively protect their local cherished trees and woodlands. We support such groups with information and advice and would encourage all those who value trees an woodlands to sign up to the charter to help make their voices heard and listened to."

Darren Kilby, head of sales and marketing manager for the leading arboricultural consultant Gristwood & Toms, says the charter should be applauded for turning the spotlight on the significant contribution that trees make to our lives and the environment. However, he remains doubtful as to whether a charter will have any meaningful effect at policy level. He says: "A charter is going to do little to reverse the hard that an ever-increasing number of people are occupying a finite space."

He adds: "Shortsighted government austerity measures have resulted in a declining population of local authority tree officers to speak up for and protect our urban forests.  Those that remain are over-worked and under-valued and there is little awareness within the general public as to the role tree-officers play.  There are certainly fewer people entering arboriculture and forestry as a career, which is only going to compound the lack of awareness further."

"A survey by the i newspaper found that 58 street trees are felled each day and Forestry Commission figures show that just 582 hectares of trees were planted in 2016 - the lowest number since records began in 1976. Some people say that the answer is obvious; we don’t need a charter – we simply need to plant more trees.  But this is only part of the solution. Without the revenue budgets to support capital tree planting projects with an appropriate aftercare strategy, the benefit achieved is going to be minimal. "

Given the weight of the issues that it carries on its shoulders, it is understandable why some of those in the arboriculture industry are feeling despondent. But hopefully the charter will go further than Kilby expects it will in addressing some of the sector’s pressing concerns.

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