By: Roy Cox, Blenheim Estates Director
It didn’t take a climate emergency for it to be observed that, ‘He who plants a tree, plants a hope,’ but today that mantra carries particular resonance. In light of rising temperatures it has been scientifically proven that trees are fundamental to our survival, and their potential extends into all areas of life: the practical, social and environmental.
Of many pioneering initiatives on the Blenheim Estate, tree planting is the most important facet of our climate change strategy.
Initially a response to worldwide deforestation, woodlands have increased from 5% of the UK landmass 100 years ago to 13% today. While this is a significant increase, it remains a poor comparison to the EU average of 38%. A century on, the environmental benefits are clearer and the need greater. If woodland cover was increased to 26%, 10% of the nation's carbon could be adsorbed naturally.
In partnership with Morgan Sindall Group PLC and Cotswolds-based forestry company, Nicholsons, Blenheim is creating nine new woodlands, consisting of 0.25 million trees. The project will be delivered with Grown In Britain and The Forest Canopy Foundation.
Blenheim’s key priority is to generate net zero carbon within five years. UK woodlands soak up approximately 21 million tonnes of CO2 each year - a third of the CO2 emitted by cars. By planting for the future, our initiative will contribute to the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere for generations to come. In the first 25 years alone we expect to sequester 22,000 tonnes of carbon.
In the meantime, tree planting also addresses the immediate threat of increased flooding. With their roots increasing the capacity of soil to soak up rainwater, trees substantially diminish downstream storm water. Root systems bind the soil, preventing erosion and reducing the flow of silt. Furthermore the interception of rainfall by native broadleaf trees can extend the effect of a rainstorm over time, allowing up to 30% of the water to evaporate back into the atmosphere. Creating and protecting woodland in the vicinity of Blenheim Palace will limit soil erosion into the Great Lake and help prevent flooding in the wider community.
The impact of tree-planting on biodiversity is extraordinary. Approximately 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity exists in forests, where both flora and fauna benefit from shade, lower water temperature and minimal agricultural pollution. According to the Woodland Trust, the UK has lost 13% of its native species in the past half century and the RSPB reports a 41% decline in native bird species. Our work will improve local biodiversity significantly through improving the quality of soil, air and water, and creating a ‘green corridor’ along the River Dorn.
But planting is only part of the solution. Protecting ancient woodland is the most effective way of reversing the effects of deforestation. A tree’s age correlates with its carbon storage capacity. Long-established woodlands, although only 25% of UK total hold 36% of the carbon stored. Furthermore, ancient forests are home to our most complex ecosystems. A biodiversity survey of our ancient woodland at High Park demonstrated that the SSSI is home to more than 2,800 separate species.
Although largely driven by our commitment to fight climate change, the motivations behind this project are extensive.
Two years of lockdowns have given many a newfound appreciation of nature and an awareness of its link to both health and economic prosperity - subjects addressed comprehensively in our Land Strategy.
Green infrastructure can substantially benefit health and wellbeing – whether used for exercise or rest, meditation or communication, food production or simply enjoyment of the natural world. As our projects with Aspire and FarmAbility have demonstrated, horticultural therapy can help address specific needs within the community. From forest schools to country fairs, the great outdoors has always been a great means of bringing people together. We have been pleased to enable communities to unite through planting initiatives – such as Woodstock Community Orchard which involved local people of all ages working together to improve the landscape that we all share.
The management of new and existing woodlands can be complex, with benefits varying substantially in relation to decisions taken.
Perhaps the greatest success of our work with Morgan Sindall has been the variation achieved. Existing woodlands suffer from uniformity, with five conifer species accounting for 88% of all softwood forests and five broadleaf species making up over 72% of the hardwood forests. We selected 28 tree varieties including Hornbeam, Lime, Sycamore, Wild Cherry, Oak, Norway Maple, Alder and Beech, along with shrubs such as Hazel, Hawthorn, Viburnums, Euonymus and Dogwoods. Experimental species will also be included to assess climate resilience.
Faced with an alarming rate of climate change, it was necessary to produce an adaptive plan which addressed potential changes. This included selecting tree species which are designed to thrive in a warmer climate; measures to avoid introducing all known pests and diseases and those that may come with increased temperatures; contingency planning for storms, floods, and wildfires; the creation of culverts, paths and roads to accommodate new rainfall patterns, and changes to the composition, structure and character of the ground flora. We have also done so without the use of plastic tree guards. And in a pioneering spirit common to many of Blenheim’s environmental initiatives, the monitoring and auditing to quantify environmental changes will be through state-of-the-art technology, including drones and Artificial Intelligence.
An ancient Chinese proverb, as relevant today as it was then, is that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now. In retrospect, we didn’t plant enough twenty years ago, but we’re making up for it now.