Since deciding to organise the first Petersfield Walking Festival, I have increasingly found my eyes drawn to potential blots on the landscape. Naturally, I would like the town to be looking its best when visitors arrive to enjoy a walk around the Western Weald.
One perpetual eyesore is rubbish. Unfortunately, randomly discarded litter is no longer purely an urban issue. So, in an effort to do my bit to uphold the Countryside Code, I have started carrying a bin bag on my walks. However, the debris is not limited to the odd beer can and sandwich wrapper. The more you walk around the countryside the more you notice the large quantities of old plastic tree guards strewn amongst the hedgerows and upon the woodland floor. These may be lightweight, but they are far too numerous and unwieldy for the passing walker to carry to the nearest bin.
Fortunately, I’m not the only person to have noticed these eyesores. About a year ago, Friends of the South Downs also recognized the problem tree guards pose to the environment. Since then, the membership organization, whose objective is to conserve and enhance the beauty and amenity of the South Downs National Park, has been steadily raising awareness of the issue at both the local and national level. Nationally they have teamed up with Friends of the Yorkshire Dales and prepared a campaign statement. This has since been endorsed by nine other Friends of National Parks in England and Wales as well as The Campaign for National Parks. In addition to this, the Woodland Trust has pledged to cease using plastic tree guards completely by 2025 and has already committed to banning single use plastic tree guards from this year. Momentum is certainly gathering against this plastic pollutant.
A couple of weekends ago I became part of this momentum when I joined a tree guard clean-up in Singleton Forest, jointly organized by Friends of the South Downs and Forestry England. Over a 3-hour session a team of 12 volunteers bagged up approximately 750 old tree guards. What’s more, the tubes were going to be recycled….fortunately not into new tree guards.
The process of gathering up the old guards initially appeared straightforward; however, it was not as easy as simply picking them up here and stacking them there. Many were still attached to wooden stakes with non-recyclable cable ties. These had to be cut off so they could be collected separately. Some guards were also still strangling the trees they once protected, so had to be carefully prised away. Those that had been lying on the forest floor a while had even become home to small mammals like dormice. We therefore had to be mindful of disturbing them, particularly with it being the breeding season.
The difference just 12 people were able to make in 3 hours was staggering. The result of our labour was not only visible in terms of the stack of tubes we built, but also in how clear we left the forest floor. The morning was also informative with the Forestry England staff explaining how the organization is continually seeking out environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic guards. In fact, they have already started making some changes at nearby Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Here they are trying out biodegradable alternatives this year. This is something they are then hoping to scale up nationally in the autumn and winter of 2022/23.
While this is clearly a good start, the bigger picture is somewhat more challenging. This is because the government wants to plant 3,000 hectares of woodland every year to help meet its twin goals of reducing our carbon footprint and reaching net zero emissions. This ambitious target is tainted by the fact that many of these trees will need protecting from browsing deer and rabbits, to ensure they reach maturity. Despite the trials at QECP, there is still a lack of credible, biodegradable alternatives to plastic tree guards in sufficient scale. Given the necessity for plastic to still be part of the tree protection mix, it is now Forestry England’s policy for all tree guards to be collected and removed from sites at the end of their useful life – roughly 10-15 years after planting.
Accountability is key to ensuring these guardians of our woodlands follow through with this commitment. Fortunately, with technology, they are now able to keep track of areas where tree guards have been used, to ensure they are collected and sent for recycling as soon as their purpose has been served.
However, until sustainable alternatives become commercially viable, Friends of the South Downs will be continuing to: increase awareness of the tree guard problem, hold the tree planters accountable for their removal, lobby for more research into biodegradable alternatives, work with SDNP to regulate their use, as well as organize more collection days. If you would like to help clear the countryside of this plastic blight do consider joining Friends of the South Downs to receive news of future clean up dates, and other worthwhile projects they support. Not only do many hands make light work but it will ensure our area is looking its best for future visitors.