How is this tackling the climate crisis?
In recognition of this, Wirral Council has created a detailed and ambitious ten-year strategy to safeguard local trees and plant hundreds of thousands more, on and beyond council-owned land
The Wirral Tree, Hedgerow and Woodland Strategy 2020-2030 was developed in collaboration with an impressive network of partners including tree wardens, community groups, private, charitable and community landowners, and local and national tree organisations. It has three elements: participate, protect and plant.
Participate relates to encouraging the kind of robust community support that will be vital for the success of the strategy. Protect recognises that planting new trees is not enough; a sapling does not deliver the same environmental benefits as a fully matured 300-year-old oak. Therefore, existing trees must be cared for, because retention is preferable to planting.
Finally, to complement the safeguarding of existing trees, the authority will plant 21,000 new trees every year for the next decade. Planting will be guided by the principle of ‘the right tree for the right place’. Correctly sourcing, planting, and maintaining trees will enable the Wirral to nurture a diverse and resilient stock of trees of varying age and species. The 210,000 new trees will increase Wirral’s canopy cover from 13% to 25%.
The council began consulting on the strategy in late 2019. It officially came into force in August 2020 and planting begun in January 2021, the earliest planting season after the strategy’s enactment.
The council is taking its approach extremely seriously, with the tree strategy reviewed annually by the council and its stakeholders. A cross-disciplinary working group will also track the effectiveness of the strategy over time. The council hopes that this first decade will be the strong foundation for a vision spanning the next 50 years and beyond.
Include protection for existing trees:
It is important that tree strategies included protection of existing trees, and restoration of existing woodland, wherever possible to ensure maximum impact on climate and biodiversity. The council also found that this was essential to gain public support.
At the public consultation stage, Wirral Council received many positive responses to the proposed strategy, but also encountered emphatic opposition to felling trees under any circumstances. There was some scepticism about the plans, because the council had felled 2,225 trees in the years leading up to 2020. As a result of this strong feeling, the strategy now clearly states that felling is always a last resort. Other councils should anticipate a strong reaction to any past or current felling of trees, and be prepared to respond to concerns. In the Wirral, once planting got underway trust was built through visible action, allaying public anxieties.
The right tree in the right place:
The replicability of the Wirral approach to increasing tree coverage will depend on local geography. Strategies should be tailored to the local landscape and ecosystems, though some principles such as ‘the right tree in the right place’ are universally applicable. Wirral was already home to eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which the council owns parts or all of, plus existing woodlands at Dibbinsdale, the Dungeon, the Beacons, and Eastham Country Park. Other parts of the UK will differ to the Wirral in degree of urbanisation relative to forested area or may include valuable habitats where tree-planting is inappropriate (for example, grasslands, marshlands, sand dunes, etc).
Work across boundaries:
Trees, forests and woodlands cross political boundaries. Councils may need to work with neighbouring councils or encourage neighbours to implement their own measures to protect trees and increase tree cover. Trees are a relatively apolitical subject, as evidenced by the agreement between parties on Wirral Council – this should facilitate cross-boundary, cross-party partnership.
Importance of good data:
An extremely important lesson for councils looking to expand their own tree coverage is the need for good data. In Wirral, the council has created a comprehensive database which catalogues all of Wirral’s existing trees. Each new tree planted is entered into the system and given a unique reference number. Using tools like i-tree enabled the council to map trees, their condition and their ecosystem value. This made it easier to identify gaps with which to fill new trees, or those locations where new species needed to be introduced to increase resilience. Good quality, up-to-date data on trees is crucial.
A long-term commitment:
A further lesson is that tree-planting is not a ‘quick-win’. To deliver their full benefits, trees need to be nurtured into maturity. Councils must know that this is a long-term commitment, because many tree-planting schemes fail due to poor follow-up care. The pay-off on indicators like air quality may not be immediate.
Good communication is vital:
Finally, councils need to develop a strong communication strategy and education campaigns otherwise they will not secure the volunteers needed to plant significant numbers of trees. Keeping local people on board and giving them ownership is the lifeblood of the Wirral’s Tree Strategy. Education is important to teach communities and residents how best to take care of the trees they plant and, indeed, to get them to care about trees in the first place. Councils with an existing pool of climate champions have manpower ready to mobilise for tree-planting.
Wirral View, the council’s news outlet, publishes a bi-monthly newsletter dedicated to local stories on the environment and climate change.
What impact has it had?
By September 2021, 24,032 trees had been planted across the Wirral, putting the council well ahead of its annual target of 21,000 trees, despite the complications of coronavirus. The pandemic limited community planting, but this problem was offset by other developments – contractors were able to carry out early planting, as were schools (which were subject to different social distancing guidelines). Of the trees planted so far, 700 arrived through the Urban Tree Challenge, 10,000 via the Eco Schools programme involving 32 schools, and a further 10,000 were planted in two new woodlands in conjunction with Mersey Forest contractors.
Forging community links:
The tree strategy has also prompted the creation of the Wirral Initiative on Trees, which brings together some of the council’s key partners. These include, but are not limited to: Wirral Tree Wardens, the Friends of Wirral Parks Forum, Wirral Environment Network, The Wirral Society, Wirral Wildlife, the Urban Beekeepers Association, and Wirral Countryside Volunteers. The Wirral Initiative on Trees is an indispensable forum for sharing information about the tree strategy with communities, and also gathering their feedback.
Projected carbon impacts:
It is projected that by 2030 the Wirral Tree Strategy will have led to the sequestration of 222 tonnes of carbon. In 2022, a study by forestry organisation Forest Research will examine the strategy’s impact in its first few years.