A new start for woods and trees
On 6th November 2017 the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People – Tree Charter for short – will be formally launched at Lincoln Castle. Two years in the making, rooted in more than 60,000 stories from people across the UK about the trees and woods in their lives, and crafted by more than 70 organisations working in collaboration, this really has been a labour of love.
Love is a good word to associate with the Tree Charter. It exists to demonstrate the huge groundswell of love for trees that exists under the surface of UK society. It also serves as a reminder to those who have become ‘tree blind’ that there are many reasons to fall in love with trees.
Rooted in history
Lincoln Castle has been chosen as the site of this historic moment for good reason. Within the vault of the castle is displayed one of only two remaining copies of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. This influential document was signed alongside the revised Magna Carta by Henry III when he was just nine years old and seeking to ensure support from the Barons. In addressing their concerns it represents perhaps the first attempt to set down the rights of citizens to the sustainable benefits of the landscape. The charter was a reaction to the increasing restrictions imposed by Henry’s predecessors Kings Richard and John, who declared more and more of England to be ‘Royal Forest’ and enforced draconian ‘Forest Law’ to punish those who trespassed to graze their pigs on acorns or to collect firewood. For farmers who found that their local wood was now out of bounds, this was a blow to their livelihood. The charter set out what benefits any free men should have access to even if the landscape was a Royal Forest. These included ‘pannage’ (collecting acorns or beech nuts for pigs), ‘estover’ (collecting firewood) and even some limited rights to hunt animals that lived in the forest. Other rights stipulated in the charter were less concerned with woods and trees, since a ‘forest’ in those days referred to a landscape, not just woodland.
For centuries preceding 1217 people depended on woods and trees for these same resources. It was not until access to these benefits was under threat, however, that there was energy and resolve to call for rights to be established. Why protect what is not under threat?
A crisis for the UK’s woods and trees
Nowadays our relationship with trees and woods is very different. Even those who work in woods or with trees are unlikely to source their basic supplies from them. They draw their salary and buy food, fuel and materials from shops and suppliers. The benefits we enjoy from trees, however, are still vital to our quality of life. They improve our air quality, support our mental health, help in the fight against pollution and climate change, and provide a host of opportunities for livelihoods and creative pursuits.
Our access to these benefits is under threat – just as they were in 1217. Planting is failing to replenish what is lost each year to development, old age and disease. We are already one of the least wooded countries in Europe, and yet policy fails to protect what we have. Even the irreplaceable ancient woodland that covers just 2% of the UK is underprotected, with more than 70 individual ancient woods currently under threat from development projects. Street trees, which for many people provide their daily contact with nature, are prioritised less and less. Big trees planted in Victorian times are nearing the end of their life as safe street trees, and many roadside ash trees are succumbing to Ash Dieback, yet replacements are not being planted in time to grow to maturity before the originals have to be removed, leaving urban areas devoid of leafy canopy for a generation. In some cases, as in Sheffield, healthy mature trees are being destroyed because the cost of maintaining them and managing the pavement damage they cause is considered more than it is worth to retain them. For the individuals whose lives those specific trees touch this is an approach that takes away important elements of life that they may have taken for granted, or certainly would not have considered at risk of the whims of decision-makers. The sound of wind through leaves, shade on a summer’s day, a link with personal and local history, and a daily glimpse of nature.
A bright future for forestry and arboriculture
ICF has been an integral member of the steering group for the charter since the earliest days of the campaign, feeding in the concerns and priorities of those who understand trees best – those who work with them each day. A greater respect for the valuable contribution of trees will bring a greater respect for the sector that enables them to have that positive impact on our lives. The Tree Charter is intended to boost interest in forestry arboriculture career options, and to increase understanding across society of the important role of skilled professionals in enabling trees and people to stand stronger together.
Join us for the launch in Lincoln Castle on 6th November, and in the meantime sign the charter and become one of thousands of people across the UK whose voices add to the call for the Principles of the Tree Charter to be taken up across society and used to shape a stronger future for trees and people
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.