Tree planting has almost become an industry in its own right. Trees are, of course, an essential part of the global ecosystem, providing the oxygen that allows us to breathe, as well as being essential wildlife habitats. There are a myriad of charities that are planting trees around the world - there’s even an internet search engine, Ecosia, that puts all its profits into planting trees.
Tree planting is undoubtedly a vital element in the race to save the environment. But trees need water, and water is getting scarcer. So by planting hundreds of thousands of trees every year, aren’t we just adding to the current levels of water stress?
The simple answer is ‘no’. And there are many reasons why trees help to conserve more water than they consume.
Trees will absorb a lot of water, but through a process called transpiration, they release the majority of that water into the atmosphere. Transpiration occurs because the tree needs to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through pores - known as stomata - in its leaves and stems. Carbon dioxide is exchanged for the water which evaporates and diffuses into the atmosphere. Transpiration is the reason why the air around trees is usually cooler than in areas without trees. But trees also provide valuable shade that helps the atmosphere to stay cool which, in turn, also helps to keep the soil moist.
Tree roots loosen the soil, which makes it easier for water to percolate deep into the ground. This means that during heavy rain, more water is absorbed into the soil and there is less chance of run-off which leads to flooding. In one study, pasture land that had been planted with a belt of young trees had a water infiltration rate that was 60 times higher than pasture land without trees.
In periods of heavy rain and flooding, trees absorb a lot of water through their leaves. Over time, they slowly release that water back into the soil and atmosphere, helping to prevent flooding at the same time as keeping water where it will be needed.
Tree canopies also help with flood prevention simply by slowing down the rain and capturing moisture in the leaves. Some studies suggest that up to 30% of water captured in this way will evaporate back into the atmosphere without ever reaching the ground - an incredible way of helping to prevent floods.
The ability of trees to prevent flooding means that the water is more manageable and more likely to stay where it’s needed. Areas without trees are hotter, drier, and more prone to soil erosion, eventually producing desert conditions.
In Africa, an ambitious project to grow a Great Green Wall stretching 8,000 across the continent began in 2007. It has already made a huge difference, protecting the soil and reversing the desertification of the area. This is allowing people to grow their crops, proving that trees really do give more than they take.
This year, the government launched a new round of grants for woodland creation. Farmers and landowners in England could be granted up to £10,000 for every hectare of new woodland planted, as well as receiving contributions towards maintenance costs. In the future, this new woodland could also lead to additional income from carbon credits.
Another grants scheme is ‘Woodlands for Water’, a government tree-planting scheme that is supporting farmers and landowners to plant 3,150 hectares of trees in six river catchment areas by March 2025. Far from taking too much water, the trees will protect the rivers from both drought and flooding, at the same time as boosting biodiversity and creating wildlife corridors. The trees will also provide valuable shade that will help keep the water temperatures cool.
The Scottish government’s Forestry Grant Scheme offers grants for the creation and maintenance of new woodland. This includes provision for agroforestry land, where trees are planted on agriculture pasture or forage land.
The government in Northern Ireland also offers a variety of forestry grants for a number of woodland, agroforestry and community schemes.
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