Tree guards, a necessary evil?

Simon Watts
October 12, 2020

I’ve worked or volunteered in conservation for over twenty years and in that time I must have planted thousands of trees. Each one is an act of faith. You don’t know that it will grow, but you trust it will find a way. Some you plant knowing that you will not be around to witness their full stature. Others, like silver birch, you know are short lived and you may even end up felling as the woodland develops. However you want to give each one the best start in life. You dig a hole; you support it with a stake and then...

Then you add a tree guard. Each tree I have planted has been religiously accompanied by a plastic tree guard. However, I'm not sure its the right thing to do anymore.

I’ve always thought they were a necessary evil to protect the tree from predation. From deer or rabbits or voles. Funders like paying for tree guards. There’s something solid in the ground that says “look we’re planting trees.” They know they've got a good chance of establishing too. What they perhaps give little thought to is “what next?”

What funders rarely pay for is the removal of tree guards in ten or fifteen years once they’ve done their job. The tree expands and splits the tree guard or plastic degrades but it doesn’t disappear. Volunteers can be invaluable removing them but there are still costs associated with recycling them and supporting volunteers. Increasingly we’ve noticed during riverside clear ups that we’re collecting broken tree guards. Tons of micro plastics go unseen but will persist for decades.

A tree guard in the beck at this week's volunteer day

What should we do?

Alternatives do exist. You can buy biodgradable tree guards. One of these states:

“The Treebio has been designed to last for 4 years, the UV stabilizer additive present within the spiral will migrate over the course of 4 years through the process of photodegradation. Once the UV stabilizer additive has migrated, a second additive will facilitate the breakdown or shatter of the spiral into pieces typically less than 3 cu mm in size. These pieces will then end up on the forest floor surrounded by grass, earth and leaf allowing the biodegradation process to begin. The shattered pieces of the spiral will then combine with the micro-organisms and bacteria found in soil until they ultimately revert back to base organic materials, CO2 and water. It will biodegrade completely in industrial composting facilities but we cannot give any definite times of breakdown in these circumstances as there are far too many unknowns and variables for us to cover in any test programme.”

It all sounds rather neat but the detail suggests that the fragments will persist for quite some time. Ultimately I think they will need to removed by willing hands rather than left in the natural environment. Other paper ones exist but their life of two growing seasons sounds very limited and somewhat futile. I’ve seen pictures on social media of fantastic rewilding projects where natural regeneration is nudged on by tree planting. This however ususually relies on expensive fencing to exclude deer and rabbits. All these options face challenges with environmental impact, cost and convincing landowners that they can effectively protect saplings for the required amount of time.

Looking for the answer

The Yorkshire Dales Millenium Trust is looking to pilot a project that will remove redundant tree guards over 8 hectares for reuse or recycling. They want to engage communities and volunteers in tackling the problem, and plant 7,000 trees in 5 woodlands to trial alternatives to the plastic tree guard.  It will seek a sustainable solution that they can share nationally at the end of the trial.

I look forward eagerly to the results.

© Copyright Aire Rivers Trust 2020
The Aire Rivers Trust is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales No: 07464227 and a Registered Charity No: 1145609
Registered Office at: 38 Morton Lane, East Morton, Keighley BD20 5RS
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