ROBERT HARDMAN on the plans to plant three BILLION trees

ROBERT HARDMAN on the plans to plant three BILLION trees

A tree-mendous challenge! ROBERT HARDMAN on the plans to plant three BILLION trees and create 200,000 more miles of hedgerows in Britain to save the environment

  • The Government appointed Sir William Worsley to the new ‘Tree Champion’ role
  • Some said it was little more than a gimmick after he only served one day a week
  • Yet, like his subject matter, the squire of Hovingham has swiftly put down roots
  • He has been across the UK to forests and coming up with national ‘tree strategy’

Not everyone is appalled at the thought of complying with the Committee on Climate Change’s new diktat to turn down their thermostat to 19 degrees on a bleak midwinter’s night.

‘We would have to turn ours right up and even then I’m not sure we’d hit 19 degrees,’ laughs Sir William Worsley as we sit in his office at the back of Hovingham Hall, handsome North Yorkshire home to the Worsley family since it was built by his five-times great-grandfather in 1751.

Sir William rejoices in the title of Britain’s first ‘Tree Champion’. Yet his job has suddenly become a great deal more serious.

For if Britain is ever going to hit the carbon emissions targets set in the recent Climate Change Report, then ministers will need all the help they can get from the squire of Hovingham.

Branching out: The Government appointed 62-year-old Sir William Worsley (pictured) to the new ‘Tree Champion’ role

In just a couple of weeks, the climate change debate has escalated from a squabble about a pink boat on London’s Oxford Street to a debate on our entire way of life.

While politicians from all sides have withered beneath the steely gaze of Swedish teenage eco-warrior Greta Thunberg, the Government’s own independent panel of experts has produced a stark vision of the Britain of 2050 — a hair-shirted land of shivering, stay-at-home vegetarians.

According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), chaired by the former Tory Cabinet Minister, Lord Deben (better known as John Gummer), we are going to have to slash our meat consumption, curtail our flying habits, never drive a petrol-fuelled car again and turn down the heating.

Some sniffed that this was little more than a gimmick. After all, Sir William was only contracted to serve one day a week for just one year with no salary. Yet, like his subject matter, he has been swift to put down roots

There is, though, one item on the apocalyptic must-do list that might prove popular: planting more trees. Trees not only increase biodiversity by providing a new habitat for wildlife, they help to slow the pace of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the air. According to the CCC, the UK will need to plant 3 billion trees and 200,000 miles of hedgerow by 2050, with nearly a fifth of existing farmland turned over to woods, hedges and peatland.

It represents what will be a monumental transformation of the countryside.

As a result, last year’s appointment of Sir William looks positively prescient.

What a pity, then, that his position is supposed to expire next month. Or is it?

Sir William has been all over the country, inspecting street schemes, forests, bio-security units and the rest while regularly reporting back to ministers as he formulates a new national ‘tree strategy’

It was last June that the Government appointed the 62-year-old sixth baronet to the new ‘Tree Champion’ role. Environment Secretary Michael Gove was not only concerned about a Tory pledge to plant 11 million new trees. He was also alarmed that councils in urban areas such as Sheffield were chopping down healthy trees to save on maintenance.

Some sniffed that this was little more than a gimmick. After all, Sir William was only contracted to serve one day a week for just one year with no salary. Yet, like his subject matter, he has been swift to put down roots.

He has been all over the country, inspecting street schemes, forests, bio-security units and the rest while regularly reporting back to ministers as he formulates a new national ‘tree strategy’.

Even before this month’s climate change report, there was talk of renewing his appointment. Now, that seems a foregone conclusion.

For trees seem destined to return to the sort of exalted position they once enjoyed in pre-industrial Britain.

There have been periodic attempts to encourage us all to grow more trees — such as the ‘Plant a Tree in ’73’ campaign or the Woodland Trust’s landmark scheme (with the Daily Mail) to create new woods to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012

Over many centuries, the safety of the nation depended on timber. The very first recorded piece of green legislation was Henry VIII’s 1543 edict on protecting the national supply of oak. Without it, there might never have been a Navy capable of seeing off the Spanish Armada, let alone circumnavigating the world and building an empire. To this day, Heart Of Oak is the march of the Royal Navy.

All that changed, however, in 1862 with the American Civil War. The Battle of Hampton Roads was the first contest between two ‘ironclad’ ships. Wooden navies would be no more.

‘Almost overnight, the market for timber collapsed and it’s never been quite the same again since,’ says Sir William.

He pays tribute to those landowners, such as his own great-grand-father, who steadfastly kept on growing trees because they loved them.

Of course, a sizeable demand for timber would remain, whether for house-building, firewood or general use in two world wars. But Britain slid to the foot of the European table, with just 13 per cent of land under tree cover (versus 33 per cent of Germany and 37 per cent of Spain).

There have been periodic attempts to encourage us all to grow more trees — such as the ‘Plant a Tree in ’73’ campaign or the Woodland Trust’s landmark scheme (with the Daily Mail) to create new woods to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Now, it would seem, we are on the cusp of a rural revolution.

So I have come to spend a day with our national Tree Champion at the very place that inspired his love of trees.

‘Trees make us better people. They improve our lives,’ he says brightly as we walk through the lush, tree-lined parkland rising up behind Hovingham Hall.

Sir William takes tree-planting in the park very seriously.

‘I peg the location for each one and then check it from the house with binoculars to check it is exactly where it should be,’ he explains. He has also laid out three new copses, one for each of his three children (two grown-up girls and his student son, Marcus, who will inherit the title and estate). He has a particular soft spot for sycamores — ‘some people argue they’re not native but they have a beautiful shape’ — and loathes leylandii. ‘Ugh! It’s a weed, not a tree.’

Sir William detests grey squirrels — ‘tree rats’ — and deer. ‘If we are going to protect all these new trees we need, we are going to have to be very tough on things that eat them. I am afraid life is about balance’

Sir William similarly detests grey squirrels — ‘tree rats’ — and deer.

‘If we are going to protect all these new trees we need, we are going to have to be very tough on things that eat them. I am afraid life is about balance.’

He devotes 900 acres of the estate to traditional forestry. Different tree types grow in cycles in thick plantations — and all are named after members of the family.

One patch of wood is named for his father’s sister, Katharine Worsley, better known as the Duchess of Kent. Her 1961 wedding to the Duke of Kent in York Minster (at which Sir William was a page boy) was attended by the Queen and all the Royal Family and followed by a reception here at Hovingham Hall.

Sir William — ‘can we please just stick to William,’ he insists — says he’s planted around 40,000 trees every year since he took over the running of Hovingham from his father, Sir Marcus, in the late Eighties.

In other words, he has planted nigh on a million trees himself.

He sees himself, first and foremost, as a farmer with 1,500 acres of mainly arable land on top of his woods. But he juggles that with various voluntary roles.

Sir William had no idea he was even being interviewed for the position of ‘Tree Champion’ when the selection took place — at the home of the Prince of Wales.

‘The Prince was having a major conference on tree health at Highgrove with around 300 experts,’ he recalls. ‘Over a cup of tea, I found myself talking to Michael Gove. Obviously everyone wanted to grab a few minutes with the Secretary of State so it became rather embarrassing with all these people hovering for a word, but Michael carried on chatting for quarter of an hour.’

Soon afterwards, he was offered the post — but with no budget or pay. As with his work for the National Forest, he would be doing this pro bono publico.

‘I don’t think a management consultant would be very impressed,’ he jokes, pointing out that he has to hire a part-time estate manager two days a week to do his other ‘jobs’.

‘But the point is that if I can achieve what I’d like to achieve, then it could change things on a national scale which would be a major achievement.’

On paper, it looks an impossible task. According to the original five-page job description from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Sir William is charged with overseeing 11 million new trees across the country, plus a further million in towns. He must ‘bring together mayors, city leaders and other key players across government to promote the value of trees’, ‘promote comprehensive Tree and Woodland Strategies’ and shape a 25-year national plan. To do that working a one-day week for one year on no pay seems a tad optimistic.

Sir William says he’s planted around 40,000 trees every year since he took over the running of Hovingham from his father, Sir Marcus, in the late Eighties

But Sir William says he is thriving. ‘I have no budget or staff but I have very good ministerial access,’ he says.

Michael Gove had supper at his London flat recently — ‘he is highly intelligent, he listens and he doesn’t suffer fools’ — and he works closely with two of the Defra Ministers, David Rutley and Lord Gardiner. The Tree Champion is going to need more than a year, however, which is why discussions are ongoing about an extension to his role.

His national strategy proposals will not go out for consultation until the autumn.

As for Britain’s eco-protesters, he shares their concerns but says they must ‘broaden their appeal beyond the usual suspects’. However, Sir William applauds their strategy of non-violence.

He also believes we must start addressing the new climate change report: ‘It’s very hard but we’ve got to give it a crack.’ He divides his role between urban and rural. In the case of the latter, he wants more incentives for farmers to manage existing woodland and to plant trees on less viable agricultural land. In cities, he wants everyone to plant more.

‘Look at this — three new trees on one city street and they already speed up floodwater drainage by more than one hour,’ he says, excitedly showing me some photos he took on his phone the previous day in Manchester.

‘If people have a front garden, I want them to plant a tree, not a flowerbed.’

He points to the almond tree planted in front of the family’s London home by his late father during his days as a Tory MP.

Sir Marcus persuaded fellow Tory MP Margaret Thatcher to move into the same road in Flood Street, Chelsea. They often drove to the Commons together in his Mini.

By the time Mrs Thatcher became PM, Sir Marcus had chucked in politics and returned to Hovingham to take over the family seat from his own father.

The house’s official guidebook notes modestly: ‘The Worsleys have never claimed to be a grand aristocratic family, but played their part in local and county affairs, with an occasional appearance on the national stage.’

Sir William is simply following tradition, arguing that a historical perspective can be useful in 21st century public life, especially with trees.

‘Politicians work on a five-year cycle and ten years is a very long time in politics. But it’s short-term to me.’

The Worsleys arrived here in Tudor times. Thomas Worsley, surveyor-general to George III, amassed enough money to start work on a new mansion in the mid-18th century. Passionate about horses and architecture, he began by designing his own palatial stable block and riding school.

By the time he had finished that, money was tight, and so the stables became the house.

So does Sir William have a favourite tree? He has two, both oaks. One, known as the King Oak, is the oldest tree on the estate and predates the arrival of the Worsleys. ‘It is the only tree we haven’t planted,’ he jokes.

Elsewhere stands a 400-year-old, moss-covered specimen called the Prince Oak. Sir William has fond memories of childhood picnics beneath its gnarled old branches.

Presumably, there must also be Queen Oak? ‘I’m afraid it got blown down,’ he replies. When was that? ‘Oh, quite recently — 1890.’

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