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Feature: How tree planting fund can achieve councils’ climate goals

The Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund was launched earlier this year and has been promoted by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT), on behalf of Defra and the Forestry Commission. Michele Cusack, ADEPT member and Director of Economic and Community Infrastructure Commissioning at Somerset County Council, explains what the fund means for her authority.

The Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund is designed to help local authorities accelerate woodland and tree planting plans, providing local authorities with financial support to boost capacity and resource, helping them to employ, train up and bring on board professional expertise to drive and accelerate tree planting and woodland creation commitments.

In 2019, Somerset County Council declared a climate emergency and, earlier in 2022, an ecological emergency. We are committed to tackling the climate crisis and a critical part of our response concentrates on the impacts of the natural environment, with tree and woodland planting being a key area of focus. Without coordinated action to manage and expand our woodlands, it will become much harder for Somerset to reach our net zero targets or contribute to the UK government’s tree planting goals.

To succeed with our planting commitments, we need to be more strategic, developing and designing planting proposals, consulting widely, applying for capital grants and organising large scale planting. However, we face significant barriers as we do not currently have staff with the knowledge, expertise or skills to lead on this.

We applied to the Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund as a partnership together with Exmoor National Park, with a bid to recruit three new posts. We’ve just been informed that we were successful – this will allow us to recruit a tree project officer, a community empowerment officer, and a technical officer.

green grass and trees during daytime

This bid for funding has been running in parallel with the development of our Tree Strategy for Somerset, which will inform our planting plans, getting the right tree in the right place. This has been put together with partners such as the district councils and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AoNB).

The Tree Strategy will set out costed plans for significantly increasing tree planting across the whole of the county – we are ambitious and have targets to plant 160,000 trees over the next two planting seasons. As a rural county we are considered surprisingly ‘tree bereft’, with just 8% of tree coverage in Somerset and we want to at least double that over the next decade.

The Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund will capitalise on this work and drive the delivery of the resulting action plan. We are aware that in the past tree planting has taken place with little thought about species or biodiversity. It’s vital that we consider potential drought, maintenance and the species which will be able to survive the extreme changes in our climate.

One of the main challenges that we face is around land ownership. As a council, we don’t own large parcels of land, so this will mean working closely with partners to identify land that is suitable for tree planting and to implement and project manage this aspect. We will depend on the goodwill and cooperation of others – having these dedicated new staff in place who will be able to lead on submitting funding bids and act as the council’s key contact point for landowners, community groups, developers, individuals and organisations, will greatly increase our ability to make an impact.

Another challenge is around behaviour and perception. We recognise that we have a role in convincing, inspiring and persuading people of the benefits of trees and the positive impact tree planting will have.

Currently, our sole resource on arboriculture is within the highways team who are very much focused on the maintenance of unsafe trees. The ability to recruit tree specialists gives us a different perspective, taking the focus from trees being a threat, or something that needs to be managed, to a valuable resource with numerous benefits.

In Somerset, our net zero target is for 2030. By this date, the new woodlands will be growing and sequestering or ‘soaking up’ carbon dioxide. We’ll be making a measurable difference to our carbon balance and having a real impact within Somerset.

The Woodland Creation Accelerator Fund will truly help us as a county to achieve our tree planting ambitions. Our climate emergency logo is a tree – this is important because of the symbolism of what trees provide to the world, giving us the quality of life that we all enjoy and helping secure the health and vitality of the planet.

Photo by Deb Barnes

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