Trees and plants in the UK are suffering from the impact of climate change and, as warmer temperatures continue to take hold, many of our indigenous species of tree may be the next victims.
Trees are rooted in our cultural, social and mythological identity. From the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis, to Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, to the Celtic and Roman tree gods, trees are core to our cultural references. From commonly known scenes in Shakespeare, through to the present day, where trees appear in blockbuster films ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones as characters in their own right.
This symbol of cultural identity could soon be in danger though, as the impact of climate change continues in the UK.
Impact of climate change
Our trees are under increasing threat, with the Financial Times reporting earlier this year that non-native tree species may be more adaptable to increasing temperatures than native species. They commented that:
“Aggressive agricultural and forestry practices, habitat loss and climate change are the main factors blamed. But while farming practices can be improved and habitats protected, does the pace of climate change mean that we must accept the need to embrace non-native plants, specifically trees – that can cope with our changing weather? We only have about 40 native tree species in the UK, and many are struggling.”
The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland released a 20-year research study in March this year, which found that more than half our native species have declined due to human impacts such as agricultural intensification and climate change and that non-native plant species now outnumber plant species in the wild.
The chair of the Forestry Commission, Sir William Worsley, commented in a government press release that a strategy to mitigate this climate impact could be different planting methods, which would be needed to create better climate resilience:
“The figures released today highlight the challenges we are facing with a changing climate and more frequent and extreme storm events. The woodlands of the future need to be planted and managed differently if they are to not only survive but thrive in the future. Now and in the long-term, we need a wider range of tree species and age profiles across the country. This targeted approach will ensure the long-term resilience of our precious woodlands.”
National climate solutions – Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are well known nationally for their conservation work, with their mission statement being particularly blunt:
“We’re fighting against biodiversity loss to save life on Earth.”
Kevin Martin, head of the Botanic Gardens’ tree collections, told Yorkshire Bylines: “Climate change isn’t an issue that we’re going to face 10 or 20 years from now, it’s something that we’re already having to deal with today. Across the board and particularly here in the South of England, we’re seeing plants flower earlier in the year and many trees are starting to struggle with the prolonged periods of drought we’re experiencing.
“The conditions are challenging and even here at Kew Gardens, where our historic tree collections are being tended to by a dedicated team of arborists, we are struggling to keep some of our species in a healthy state.
“Facing such as dire challenge, my colleagues and I have been exploring drier beech ranges across Eastern Europe and Western Asia that could hopefully bolster the stock of the UK’s beech trees. We are specifically looking at trees adapted to warmer and drier climates – conditions we expect to see here in the UK because of climate change – so that we can employ better species selection and ecotype matching, not just for Kew’s collections, but the wider landscape of southern England.”
Noah’s ark for the 21st century?
The seeds of more than 40,000 species of wild plants have now been banked in the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in Wakehurst, with almost 2.5 billion individual seeds protected and preserved. The focus on building a diverse collection will potentially help find climate solutions in the future.
As Dr Elinor Breman, senior research leader at MSB, says:
“Conserving seeds at the MSB is not just about chasing numbers, it’s about increasing the genetic diversity of the collections and unlocking their potential to solve some of the biggest challenges we face today, from biodiversity loss to food security to climate change.”
Regional climate solution: Yorkshire Himalayan Garden and Sculpture Park
More locally, nestled quietly in the Yorkshire hills, there are additional attempts to celebrate nature and biodiversity. With 45 acres of woodland, gardens, lakes and an arboretum, as well as over 80 individualised sculptures, the Yorkshire Himalayan Garden and Sculpture Park takes advantage of the regional microclimate to grow a diverse range of plants. As their website states, “We started the garden because the acid soil, abundance of springs and microclimate is ideal for growing Himalayan plants.” The Himalayan garden is “widely considered to have the North’s largest collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias” and certainly they are a sight to see when in full bloom.
A spokesperson for the gardens and park told Yorkshire Bylines, “We are known for our collection of rhododendrons and when they are in bloom the garden is biblical”. He added, “One of the huge things that makes the gardens unique is the microclimate we have here, many things thrive due to this. We do have a butterfly conservation status for the work we do with butterflies”. He also cautioned that a close monitoring for ash dieback and phytophthora are some of the biggest dangers facing the gardens.
Ash dieback was also referenced by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, when they had to close part of the gardens in Wakehurst to conduct tree felling work.
Ed Ikin, director of Wakehurst said:
“Recent extreme weather such as drought stress has only accelerated ash dieback’s spread. The closure of our nature reserve marks a pivotal moment in our history, as we fight this deadly disease, and serves as a reminder of how the work we undertake at Kew is critical to combat the twin threats of biodiversity loss and climate change.”
Planting for an uncertain future
The trees that we have today then face multiple threats from our changing climate including disease, drought and diversity. The dangers of monoculture plantation can be evident when disease strikes. We need to be cautious when politicians use tree-planting numbers as evidence of their ‘green’ credentials. We now have to plant trees, not for today, but for 50 years into an uncertain future, to ensure that others can continue to enjoy the experience and benefits of trees.