Our tree planting dilemma

Plastic is a problem. It doesn’t biodegrade and it's not environmentally friendly. Yet it's often turned to for its longevity and effectiveness when it comes to protecting young trees from damage.

We know it's a concern for our supporters, and the scourge of plastic pollution and the climate emergency make it an issue we urgently need to address. We will plant 2.3 million saplings on our estate by 2025, and up to half will need protection from deer, or else they simply get eaten before they can establish. How do we balance this requirement with the need for sustainability?

In an ideal world we'd dispense with tree guards entirely. We have other options available to us, including fencing against deer, humane culling or innovative planting methods that lead more trees to survive. But those options can be logistically difficult or expensive, so tree tubes will still have a role in our work.

We're looking into alternatives to plastic guards to find one that is both effective and sustainable, and our trial site at Avoncliff Wood could provide the key.

Leading the way at Avoncliff Wood

As one of the nation’s largest tree planters, we are set to be trail blazers in this field and have the opportunity to catalyse a permanent change to the tree planting world. In 2019 we established a trial site at Avoncliff Wood, near Bath, to test the new, plastic-free products coming onto the market. The trial is one of the longest running in the UK and now has nearly 20 different types of non-plastic tubes in use across 5,000 new trees, with more models being added by the week. 

Site manager Joe Middleton explains.

So this is one of the UK's leading trial sites, the most amount of tree guards. We've got 14 different types of alternate tree guards here.

These are 5,000 trees in loads of different biodegradable tree guard options. And they only really became available round about 2019.

So we've got ones made of paper, cardboard, polylactic acid, plant starch, cashew nut shell resin, wool - we've got the whole shebang. Anything that is on offer to help us with this big climate crisis, both for carbon and also the big ecological crisis, to allow the wildlife to spread into these areas.

This will be a woodland in 20 years time, so in the meantime we're just protecting that and allowing them to get up to a height where they're safe from browsing, using all of these innovative methods.      

Credit: Phil Formby / WTML

We're seeing some interesting results

A wide variety of materials are being trialed, including biodegradable designs and innovative products made from cardboard, although we've found that several of the prototypes have been degraded by the elements already. A model made from British wool and oil from cashew-nut shells has a good sustainability rating and establishes a new market for materials currently considered as waste. It looks robust so far, but it will take several years of field testing to be sure we've found the optimal design. 

Credit: Phil Formby / WTML

We're also funding further research

It's vital that any alternative products are more sustainable than the plastic tree guards they are replacing. We've partnered with University College London to undertake a landmark study to analyse the ‘cradle to grave’ environmental credentials of non-plastic alternatives, from their component ingredients to the carbon impact of manufacturing and importing them. We are sharing our findings across the industry, and will also co-fund a larger five-year field study led by the Government’s science arm Forest Research. 

£20,000
That's how much funding we're committing to research on plastic-free alternatives

Why do we use tree guards at all?

Newly planted trees are susceptible to browsing by wildlife during their first 10 years of growth. Tree shelters, also called tree guards or tubes, are a common and effective method of protecting against this damage, maximising the chance of saplings establishing into thriving woodland. 

Plastic tree shelters in particular have become one of the most commonly used forms of browsing management throughout the forestry sector. They tend to be the most economical and durable option, able to withstand up to 10 years in all weather conditions.

Non-plastic alternatives have only very recently become commercially available, and to date none of these alternatives have demonstrated that they remain effective for the required length of time. We're working to change that.

What else are we doing about the use of plastic tree guards on our land?

We've committed to ending the use of new single-use plastic tree shelters on our land from 2021, and to ensuring that all existing shelters are removed at the end of their life. The ultimate goal is to have no plastic tree guards in use across any of our activities by 2030.

To do this we are:

  • researching effective and sustainable plastic-free alternatives
  • reducing the need for tree guards (plastic or otherwise)
  • re-using the plastic guards we already have as many times as possible
  • recycling tree guards at the end of their useful life.

Reducing

The most sustainable tree guard is no tree guard at all. Our priority focus is on establishing planting techniques and processes that avoid the use of individual tree protection wherever possible. Some of the methods we use to help protect newly planted trees from browsing include:

  • over-planting of saplings (planting extra trees to help mitigate losses to browsing) 
  • deer and rabbit fencing
  • timber barriers
  • direct seeding
  • positive management for natural regeneration (reducing the need for planting)
  • enhanced wildlife control including cutting-edge monitoring
  • planting protective thorn trees around saplings
  • designing woodland planting to increase the rate of sapling establishment.

Re-using

Although tree guards are designed to be single use, we have been establishing processes that maximise the opportunities for re-using tubes a number of times before recycling them.

Work at sites such as Brynau Farm near Neath, South Wales has demonstrated that it is possible to triple the useful life of tree tubes by reusing them up to three times. This requires careful selection of the right type of tube and fixing, as well as detailed planning and management to ensure that there is a defined continued use for the guards.

Recycling

It has been standard practice on our estate for some time to re-use plastic guards if possible, or to recycle them at the end of their useful life. We will continue to do this until all of the plastic tree shelters currently in use on our estate are used up.

We are working with manufacturers and recyclers to develop a recycling process that turns old tubes into material for the manufacture of recycled tree tubes.

Many of the tubes used across our estate come from Tubex. We are working with them to ensure that we can segregate these tubes on collection to ensure they are recycled as part of Tubex's closed loop recycling scheme. We are also collaborating across the sector to ensure that any operational barriers to recycling are eliminated.

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Learn more about how we manage our estate with sustainability in mind