Recently I spent some time with the wonderful volunteers at Moor Trees - a charity that is on a mission to restore native woodland on Dartmoor and in South Devon. I met them on a Sunday morning and we walked through the woods at Shaugh Prior, picking acorns, holly berries and other seeds, which were then taken back to their two nurseries to be grown into new trees. I also visited their nursery near Diptford to see the tree planting operation up close - it was quite something to stand there in the sunshine listening to trees that were literally ringing with birdsong. The native trees they grow are later taken back to the moor - or to other bits of land around south Devon, and planted. Every one of them will do its bit to help with carbon capture as they age, and will also be a joy for future generations. There is a desperate need for us to plant more trees in the UK, and the open moorland of Dartmoor provides an obvious location for native woodland. It is one of the few remaining areas in southern England large enough for an ambitious rewilding project to be possible - and it would historically have had far more tree cover than it does now. Dartmoor covers 368 square miles, and around a third of it is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Around 1/3 is privately owned, and 1/3 is common land, used by farmers for grazing animals. Common land covers around 75% of the moorland. "DEFRA, the national flood management agency, the Environment Agency would all like to see more trees, but this is difficult under the Dartmoor Commons Act, which was passed in 1985 when the thinking was farming dominated," said Tim Ferry, a trustee of Moor Trees. "As long as livestock is grazing, trees won't survive unless they are fenced. They need to be fenced for 10-15 years until they become fully established. But the DCA says you can only fence areas of trees of maximum one acre, and each patch has to be a mile from the nearest one - it's very restrictive." The only current government scheme that currently pays for planting trees is the England Woodland Creation offer, which requires a very high planting density - too high for example for animals to be able to graze in between the trees. What Moor Trees would like to see is some flexibility: A payment scheme that rewards farmers for planting trees - not just when they are planted but over the long term. A scheme that will pay out for less dense woodland, so that farmers and/or landowners are rewarded for planting some woodland on grazing land - but with the permission to fence until it becomes established. And given what we know now about the climate emergency, is it time to look again at some clauses of the Dartmoor Commons Act? I look forward to meeting with the Dartmoor Commoners Council to discuss these issues further. We're running out of time... trees take a long time to grow.
Anyone who is interested in creating some woodland on their land can contact Moor Trees to help - it's a brilliant project.