After almost 30 years of planting trees we know that we need to protect our precious newly planted saplings from rabbits, deer and other external factors, but doing so whilst also reducing the impact of plastic on our environment has always been a tricky subject. 

By Jackie Collins ǀ Volunteer, Forest of Marston Vale

Hundreds of newly planted trees at Wood End  Thrift

If you're a regular blog reader you'll know that last year we started the long-term project of clearing and recycling redundant tree guards at Shocott Spring, and that Senior Ranger Nicola is currently surveying other Forest of Marston Vale sites to give us useful information about what tree guards can be removed from across the Forest area.

A BBC Radio 4 programme called “Inside Science” takes a look behind the science that is changing our world, and in June it discussed the environmental damage caused by tree guards compared with the benefits of carbon capture by trees over their lifetime.

Internationally, it is recognised that trees are the key to absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and many governments are committed to increasing tree planting as part of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040. The demand for the use of tree guards is therefore likely to increase considerably, given that studies show the survival rate of trees with guards is 70%-100%, plummeting to 10%-60% with no guards.

Plastic breaks down over time into micro particles, and is dangerous to the environment because additives leach out into soil and the plastic particles harm wildlife by getting ingested into the bodies of worms that are eaten by birds and other creatures. Engineer Mark Neodovnik from University College London (UCL) was interviewed on the programme and is assessing the problem of billions of plastic particles in the environment, compared with the benefits to trees of having a longer life with guards: allowing them to absorb CO2, combat climate change and contribute to biodiversity.

UCL is also assessing the carbon footprint of manufacturing plastic shelters and considers that the impact is very small compared with 25 to 50 year carbon benefits from trees. It is working with the Woodland Trust, investigating not using guards at all, as well as assessing how long-life guards could be collected and re-used. Other research includes re-wilding, where areas of land are restored to their uncultivated state.

Leaving nothing behind...

Jo Roberts, our Community Engagement Officer is very pleased with the wonderful amount of tree planting we have achieved, but is concerned about the legacy of using plastic. We have been trying to minimise our environmental impact since we started planting trees, and have worked with some of the very first manufacturers of biodegradable tree tubes. Up until now, none of them met the requirements we had, of them staying in situ long enough to provide long-term protection until the trees were established. If they degrade too soon, browsing animals can cause considerable damage to the young trees, and seriously hamper our efforts. With increased demand for tree planting however, and with the problems of plastic pollution becoming prominent in everyone’s thoughts, several manufacturers are working on biodegradable tree tubes which look very promising. This year we are stress testing more environmentally friendly options to traditional plastic tree guards ahead of the new planting season in our efforts to be more sustainable, leaving nothing but trees on our sites once they are established.

Most of our sites are ones which see considerable pressure from browsing animals like deer and rabbits, so some of the options considered by other tree planters (like overstocking the saplings, with no tree tubes or protection) are not viable for us.

We are focussing on tree guard innovation, where tubes are made from material that eventually breaks down to bug food with no impact on the environment (for example, wool can be used as a raw material as it degrades well into the environment and naturally breaks down after about 5 years).

Other initiatives that work in different settings can include using thorn species and natural tree guards, or planting without tree guards and replacing saplings where necessary, neither of which are suitable for the planting that we do.

As Jo says “The tide has definitely turned in favour of making tree guards better environmentally. What was once accepted as a necessary evil is now recognised as a problem that can be solved.”

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