At the end of 2018, some of the Steppes Travel team made the journey north to Brigg to kickstart our tree-planting project. We joined a group of professional tree planters, employed by the Woodland Trust, to plant saplings on land that Steppes pays to have set aside for afforestation. Four years later, I visited the site to see how our trees were getting on and to learn more about how the initiative has been upscaled.
My host for the day is landowner Ben Jackson who is quick to point out the variety of wildlife as we drive across his land to the new woodland sites. Roe deer pronk across the horizon, their distinctive white tails standing out through the drizzle, hares hop alongside the hedgerows while thrushes and fieldfares feed on the heavy harvest of red berries in the hawthorn, wild cherry and rowan trees.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the saplings we had planted on a wet and cold December morning in 2018 so I was delighted to see how tall they had grown. “Straight after they were planted, we had major floods but despite this set back they are doing well,” Ben told me. He went on to explain how he believed the trees would be more robust for having to survive such inclement conditions so early in their lives.
Back in 2018, we planted a mixture of oak, Scotch pine, hawthorn, hazel and crab apple. It was the oaks that really grabbed my attention, probably because of their distinct leaf shape and the thought of how, one day, they could grow to be such huge, iconic specimens. That said, it was brilliant to see all the different species now measuring between two and three metres tall – a far cry from the knee-high, spindly saplings we put in the ground four years ago.
On the bigger site, Ben has put up a perimeter fence to protect the saplings from the voracious appetites of deer. The trees on this site were planted in January 2022 and so were faced with drought conditions less than six months after their introduction.
“These scotch pines have healthy green top shoots, but the hares have definitely had a go at them,” said Ben.
As we inspect the trees’ progress, Ben is like a proud father, telling me that while many of the saplings may not look much, they are showing all the right signs of having put down deep roots to search for moisture during the drought and thus are likely to grow strong. Ben explained how this bigger site of 15 hectares, connected to Steppes Travel’s smaller plot, is part of the government’s Nature Recovery scheme. In addition to the monies we pay, the Forestry Commission also give Ben a grant which means he is accountable for all the trees that have been planted on his land. The Forestry Commission regularly visits and looks at the ‘stock density’ of trees to ensure Ben and his team are acting as responsible guardians. If the stock density is low then Ben risks having to repay the grant, so there is a strong commercial incentive for him to give the trees all the care and attention they need.
Tree planting is a long-waiting game. It doesn’t have the Instagram-friendly buzz and imagery of wildlife-related conservation projects, but this doesn’t make it any less important. Our project in Brigg is next door to the Humber Cluster – a group of heavy-industrial companies that combine to make this area one of the most polluted in the UK. The need for green sites in this often-overlooked part of the UK is critical, to provide natural carbon capture and to give local people access to nature on their doorsteps. We are very happy to be playing a small part in helping to achieve these objectives.