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Saplings protected by tree guards

New native woodland & the problem of plastic tree guards

Plastic in the environment is a problem

It’s just one of the many sobering climate emergency issues we are currently facing – and plastic tree guards are one of the culprits.

Plastic tree guards have been relied upon time and time again to protect young trees in the landscape because of their ability to survive the harsh upland weather. But they also come with some heavy consequences – they are not environmentally friendly and do not biodegrade.

The lack of trees and woodland habitat in the landscape is also a big problem

In one of the many pledges to tackle climate change, the Government plans to treble tree planting rates over the course of this parliament.

Within the Yorkshire Dales, through the Dales Woodland Forum, we aspire to plant 6,000 hectares of woodland, scrub and wood pasture by 2030. All these young trees will need protecting.

The nature of the Dales uplands presents many challenges when it comes to woodland planting. The weather goes without saying, but the thriving populations of voles, rabbits and deer are one of the biggest threats to young woodlands as they love to nibble on the leaves and bark. Young trees would simply not survive without some form of defence from these browsing mammals. Although unsightly in the landscape and not environmentally friendly, plastic tree guards have been relied upon for their longevity and effectiveness.

So, how do we balance the requirement to protect young woodlands with sustainability?

We all wish the solution was a quick fix, but unfortunately it isn’t quite as straightforward as removing plastics from the environment overnight. The good news is that much work is going on behind the scenes to address the problem, including extensive research on alternative tree guards.

While there are a number of alternative products being developed, at the moment these are either not widely available or have been found not withstand the exposure of the uplands. We hope to be able to use alternatives soon though. For now we will focus on encouraging landowners to collect, reuse and recycle their plastic guards.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is a member of the Forestry Plastics Working Group

This group is dedicated to reducing plastics across the forestry and environmental sector, while searching for sustainable solutions. Changes are being made and manufacturers are now responding to the pressure against plastic. But the environmental impact of the many alternative guards is still unknown. And we wish to avoid simply replacing one problem with another.

The most sustainable tree guard is no tree guard

The ultimate achievement would be to have no guards in woodlands at all. Establishing planting processes and positive woodland management techniques, such as browsing mammal control and encouraging regeneration, is our best chance of moving away from tree guards entirely. But fencing against deer, humane culling, and planting methods that enable higher survival rates can be logistically difficult or expensive, which is why tree tubes still have a role to play in our work.

We also work closely with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust who are trialling alternative guards, and planting without guards at some sites. The Trust is also organising collections to send plastic guards to be recycled from established woodlands that no longer require them.