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“They’re all having summits, why don’t we?”

The Lewes Tree Summit brings together experts and enthusiasts to look carefully at the woods and the trees

The pollinating winds of change are in the air, and the world is waking up to the beautiful aromas of the forest. The mood to plant trees and re-wild is electric - but what can people who work in forestry do to make that electricity sustainable?


At the Lewes Tree Summit 2020, a green-fingered and well-rooted collective of over 100 people put their heads together to think and talk about the future of forestry in the region. It was the first of its kind, and by the end of the day it had enthusiastically been recast as an annual event - so not just sustainable but renewable.


As well as proactive members of the public, the assembled brought together sources of local knowledge including Vert Woods Community Woodland and the Lewes Tree Committee, national organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission, and international engagement strategies from RAIN.


Replacing “dithering” with “stubborn optimism”

The hosts for the day were Helen Meade of the Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Stewart Boyle of Lower Vert Woods. Helen opened the proceedings by reminding us that it was International Women’s Day and critiquing the powers that be for not doing enough to address the threats we face, nor for channelling the sudden enthusiasm of the country for tree planting. Stewart responded with “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” - a can-do attitude percolated through every subsequent talk and discussion.


Getting our hands dirty: it’s all in the details

Andy Heald, former Policy Director for Confor Skyped in to describe what he had learned over his decades in the area. Talking about ‘Expanding the UK Woodland Resources – Looking Behind the Big Tree Planting Numbers’, he noted that the UK is the second-largest importer of forest products in the world, with some of the lowest forest cover in Europe - and that makes for an economic as well as an environmental opportunity. He finished by noting that one of the biggest mistakes made in the past was in failing to engage with local communities.


The next speaker was Rob Penn, forester and author of “The Man Who Made Things From Trees”. Foresters are often solitary types, but Rob was coming out of the woods to engage with a landscape stripped of its natural ground cover and saturated with media hype. He described an ambitious project to marshal 10,000 Welsh school kids to plant a million trees on St. David’s Day 2021. The question was how to do a headline-grabbing project while mitigating the problems that are associated with that.


A panel followed, with Matthew, Henri, Luke and John evangelising with a tremendous level of expertise and technical detail, rooting it all in practical and pragmatic steps forward. Luke Everitt from the Woodland Trust explained that the target of of increasing woodland tree cover from 13% to between 17-19% by 2050 would require planting 20-30,000 hectares per year - which is no mean feat. “You can’t help but connect with somewhere where you’ve planted 100 trees,” noted Henri Brocklebank from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, reminding us that such a task can also be an opportunity for community cohesion. John Stafford of the Forestry Commission unpacked some of the complexity around tree planting regulations, and also some of the funding streams available

Key areas included planning from an ecosystems perspective, how to work with community land, and where not to plant trees to protect the biodiversity of our surroundings. “We’re not going to consult, we’re going to listen,” said Matthew Bird heading the Lewes District Council Climate Emergency and Sustainability Strategy, suggesting perhaps that things really are changing. They left the room galvanised to cut through red tape to a greener future.


Small projects with big impacts


After the panel we heard short presentations on locally-focused, micro-initiatives, beginning with Audrey Jarvis of the Lewes Tree Committee who shared her vision of Lewes as “a town in the trees rather than a town with a few trees here and there”. Keith Blackburn from Seaford Tree Wardens described planting 1000 trees in one morning along with Norman Baker and the mayor. Some critical perspectives on hype and mega-projects followed from David Cracknell of the Small Woodlands Association. Danny Diskin introduced RAIN’s project twinning a Bristol school with another in a severely deforested region on the edge of the Amazon, and invited people connected to local schools to find 13 to partner with 13 schools in the Terena indigenous reserve of Southern Brazil (details here).


Ideas take root: RAIN is gifted saplings by the Woodland Trust


In this spirit of fostering links between communities and empowering students, RAIN was gifted with 200 saplings by the Woodland Trust. Some of these will go to SML College in Fishergate as part of the indigenous twinning initiative. We are thrilled to be working together with organisations confronting a global problem with local action while giving the younger generation agency to regenerate the landscapes around them. Reach out if your school might be part of this scheme.


Making things happen


After lunch Mike Chapman from Pryor and Rickett cautiously delivered a talk on the role of forests in offsetting and the carbon market. Well done to him for taking on a controversial subject, because the one thing that was missing from the day was a strategy on how to fund all of these wonderful initiatives - but the shower of pointed questions afterwards revealed some scepticism about the current marketing drives of companies like EasyJet. The Room for Trees £1 levy on every room night sold by a hotelier in the Brecon Beacons went down much better.

Tom Ottaway from Vert Woods gave a wonderful address on how to manage a forest to maximise biodiversity and promote resilience to threats from disease and the elements. It was fascinating to hear how to balance the various factors, and what can happen if there is too much or too little light coming through the canopy, for example. The Woodland Trust’s Jim Smith-Wright then reviewed the day’s learnings with a point-by-point discussion of everything to be taken into consideration for successful forestry, and an exhortation that anyone with a woodland should aim to become the world’s greatest expert on their patch. The final presentation from Daniel Wynn of Lewes Trees Committee underlined the need for clear objectives and the scope for large tree-planting projects.


Diverse projects; shared insights


After the presentations, working groups got together to make connections plan projects for the future.


The enormous variance between the scale of the different projects represented at the Tree Summit was thrilling - from local community efforts to increase the plant diversity and biodiversity in the hedgerows of Sussex, to nationwide and international tree-planting initiatives. Despite their impressive diversity of focus, the projects and speakers all shared a vision of a greener future and a grounded and practical approach to the task.


Themes of the day included:


Engaging the community. Reforestation should not just be the pursuit of reclusive types with chainsaws in the woods. The more we engage residents, local businesses, students and community groups, the greater support there will be for the work.


Foresters sharing knowledge and skills. The better informed any project is about the land - from the soil up to the ownership - the easier it will be to launch a project and foster healthy and complex biodiversity.


Aftercare. In the last couple of years the excitement for forestry has exploded, with requests for saplings from the Woodland Trust doubling over the past year. Maintaining this momentum, ensuring the survival of the trees, and meeting the goals of maintaining biodiversity and tackling climate change depends on joined-up thinking and long-term care.


Complexity is beautiful. Throughout the day, we often returned to the idea that plants, trees and the surrounding wildlife thrive when they’re grown in combination. The intention to steer our activities away from creating monocultures - in tree planting, farming and hedgerow and woodland preservation alike - was consistent and encouraging.


Building sustainably. In Scotland, 80% of houses are constructed with a wooden frame, while in England it is only 20%. Switching to carbon sequestering wooden frames is considerably better for the environment than continuing to produce concrete - which accounts for a great deal of CO2 production. A member of the audience from the construction industry shared how new techniques allow low-grade wood to be used in housing. Discerning the right trees to plant to satisfy demands for timber and facilitate eco-friendly changes within the construction industry could help the UK meet a target of zero carbon emissions by 2030.


The curriculum is a-changing. Over the next two years, teachers will be able to develop their own lesson plans, as new teaching methods are trialled. It couldn’t be a better time to work tree-planting and sustainable living into the curriculum. (Students are currently only likely to get a good understanding of climate change if they pursue Geography to A-Level!). If you are a teacher, parent or student who would like to explore our schools projects, check out our online resources and think about joining our schools program.


Branching out to create a greener future together


These are the incredible projects and organisations that were represented at the first Lewes Tree Summit. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch!:


Andy Heald, Independent Woodland Consultant (former Policy Director for Confor)

Inspiration from Wales – Forester and author Rob Penn

Henri Brocklebank – Sussex Wildlife

Matthew Bird – Lewes District Council Climate Emergency and Sustainability Strategy

Luke Everitt – The Woodland Trust

John Stafford - Forestry Commission

Audrey Jarvis, Lewes Trees Committee

Danny Diskin, RAIN - Regenerative Agroforestry Impact Network

Karen Rigby-Faux, Greenhavens Network

David Cracknell, Small Woods Association

Andreas Kornevall, Earth Restoration Service

Keith Blackburn, Seaford Tree Wardens

Mike Chapman – Pryor and Rickett. Carbon finance and the woodland carbon code.

Tom Ottaway – Vert Woods Community Forester

Jim Smith Wright – The Woodland Trust

Daniel Wynn, LDC Arboriculturist, Lewes Trees Committee

And, on the wall of the Jolly Room where the presentations took place, an intrepid initiative called Bella Bear is connecting schools in the UK, Madagascar and the Amazon to celebrate the importance of water as a life-source and increase water sustainability - (sounds like a kindred spirit to RAIN!).


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