On guard!

Collecting used tree guards (photo courtesy of Friend of the Dales)

Increasing attention is being paid to the role of tree guards in woodlands and woodland management. Aside from being a visual eyesore, tree guards are usually made of plastic and often left to break down in situ, where they will eventually impact on natural (and human) food chains.

It’s easy to get vexed by their presence, but it is important to remember that even a decade ago, tree guards were generally regarded as a problem-free way to protect young trees and provide a beneficial microclimate to promote growth. It’s also worth noting that although plastic used in agriculture and forestry is highly visible, it’s a tiny percentage of that used in grocery. It becomes easier to see this if you consider that the lifetime of a tree guard is measured in years, whereas that of a grocery bag or wrapper is measured in hours.

There are still many situations where tree guards are an effective, sometimes essential tool and should be used. Alternatives to plastic are available but are typically more expensive, and bring their own set of environmental problems (or are simply not as effective). 

Even so, foresters are increasingly asking whether tree guards are worth using. Much depends on the risk of damage or loss from deer, rabbits or voles, and this calculation varies according to location. Given that tree guards can cost as much as whips or saplings it can make commercial sense (not to say environmental sense) simply to plant extra trees and accept some losses. Others take the view that fencing can work out cheaper and more effective, and that fencing materials are more readily re-usable or re-cyclable.

Woodland specialists such as The Woodland Trust and The National Forest share the view that plastic tree guards have their place, but these days recommend that they are used a part of a specific management plan, which allocates budget for their removal after a defined number of years. Funding organisations should take note of this, and withhold a percentage of funds to be released specifically for tree guard removal. Contrary to what is sometimes said, plastic tree guards are recyclable. If local councils won’t take them, there are businesses who will turn them into useful products.

Given the increasing public demand for a large-scale expansion of reforesting, backed up by government promises to play ball, it is crucial that sensible decisions about tree guards are built into future planting programmes.

Meanwhile, there are still vast numbers of tree guards in our countryside, deployed for what were at the time all the right reasons, but likely to remain an eyesore and potential pollutant for years to come unless action is taken. Various organisations have already focussed on this issue and have organised tree guard removal programmes while at the same time starting to encourage landowners to use them more sparingly and only as part of a management plan.

Sustainable Swaledale is joining in this initiative and has organised a tree guard removal day on Saturday 4th April 2020, starting at 10am. The site to be cleared is in Rowleth Wood between Gunnerside and Low Row.

The top section of this wood at the Gunnerside end was replanted twelve years ago and the tree guards are now redundant. As there is limited parking we will meet at the parking bay between Low Row and Isles Bridge for the short ride to the site. If anyone is interested in taking part please email treasurer@sustainableswaledale.org. More information will be provided nearer the time, but please note that the site is very steep and the ground uneven in places. It also has some of the best views in Swaledale for a well-deserved lunch stop.

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