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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall releasing bird on Hugh's Wild West

Hugh's Wild West

Lifelong nature-lover Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pursues his fascination with the wildlife of the West country.

About the programme

In this series, filmed over an entire year, Hugh joins forces with the people working to celebrate and safeguard the region’s charismatic and captivating cast of creatures. For Hugh it’s a welcome chance to raise his game as a wildlife enthusiast, learning as much as can while sharing the joys and rich rewards that come with getting closer to nature.

Read more about the series on the BBC's programme pages , or explore wildlife in more detail below.

Why plant a tree?

Planting a young tree in your garden is not a difficult or time-consuming process. But, care does need to be taken relating to the location, species type and aftercare.

Trees are an important natural resource and have been valued by civilisations for centuries – the Romans were responsible for the introduction of many tree species to Britain that were planted in their villa gardens as a source of various fruits and nuts. They also provide fuel for cooking and heating, material for building, as well as shelter for wildlife. They have played a vital role in contemporary, and historic landscaping - they were famously used to great effect by the prolific 18th-century landscape architect, Capability Brown, at Chatsworth House in the Peak District some 300 years ago.

Photo by Daniel Seßler on Unsplash

Planting a young tree in your garden is not a difficult or time-consuming process. But, care does need to be taken relating to the location, species type and aftercare.

Trees provide a range of wide environmental benefits. They can reduce air pollution as they soak up pollutant gases (such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide), they also trap pollution particles on leaves and bark and so remove them from the air. Through photosynthesis, trees store carbon as they absorb CO2, so remove it from the atmosphere, and release the oxygen. To do this the cells in the tree convert carbon from carbon dioxide to form sugars (that is starch and carbohydrates) that are stored in the tree and support its growth. This carbon is stored as long as the wood stays in existence – that is until it is either burnt or decays. Trees can also reduce soil erosion and prevent flooding by slowing the runoff of water and holding soil in place with their roots.

In the UK there are ancient woodlands that have existed for centuries, which have complex and irreplaceable ecosystems. Clearly tree planting today will not replace such woodlands, but there are huge benefits to tree planting in other areas. For example, the movement to more intensive agriculture, with higher grazing levels, has resulted in fewer woodland coppices and hedgerows in farm landscapes. This means that the planting of trees elsewhere is important. The “elsewhere” includes tree planting in more domestic and urban areas, with gardens being a particularly important place. Trees, along with a range of shrubs and grasses, provide shelter for wildlife, particularly birds.

Planting a young tree in your garden is not a difficult or time-consuming process. But, care does need to be taken relating to the location, species type and aftercare.

What tree to plant?

A Rowan tree close-up

Photo by Alicja Trepka on Unsplash

In the UK we have a temperate climate and wide range of soil types, so an extensive variety of trees and shrubs can be planted. When deciding on a type of tree, you need to think about what will be well-matched to its location, but also what it needs to provide for the local wildlife. If this tree is going to be in your garden you also need to think about how it will look, and exactly where in your garden it is going to be planted. Considering how large the tree will grow is important, so as to avoid roots or branches interfering with the construction of your (or a neighbour's) house.

It is essential to assess if your garden is suitable for a tree and if so, what species of tree. The soil is an important starting point – is it clay-like or is there lots of rubble? This may limit the growth of the tree. Thinking about how exposed or shady your garden is may highlight potential challenges to tree growth. Some trees thrive best in particular soil types – for example, peaty or sandy. It is ideal to select trees that best suit the soil type you have. Have a look at the species that grow well locally to help guide your decision.

Once you have looked at your ‘site’ it is also important to think about what you want from the tree. Are you interested in trees to support wildlife in your garden, one that will provide you with a fruit harvest, or do you want a tree that has beautiful autumn colours?

When to plant a tree?​

A red Japanese Acer

Photo by J Williams on Unsplash

It is ideal to plant trees when they are dormant, as at this time the tree can better cope with the stress of being moved. In the UK this is usually between the middle of November and late March. It is also important to avoid times of heavy frost and frozen ground.

How to plant a tree?

Tree sapling ready to plant

Photo by George Bakos on Unsplash

You can buy a tree ready to plant or decide to grow a tree from seed. The Woodland Trust has information about tree planting and how to care for your tree in the short and longer term. This includes making sure that you provide some aftercare for your tree – enough water and protection (such as with a tree guard to protect from some animals). Also keep the area close to the tree weed-free to avoid competition during its start in your garden.

It takes time. Remember that trees are relatively slow growing and so it may take a while before you see the wildlife benefits. However, after a few years, you will begin to see birds making use of it and fruit growing.

A close-up of some ferns on the forest floor

How you can help the plants near you

Discover the power of plants and learn how to contribute to our growing knowledge and understanding of the flora across the nation.

Plants are key ecosystem service providers, however relatively little is known about many species of vegetation. But, with the help of enthusiasts working on the National Plant Monitoring Scheme, our knowledge is set to improve. 

A close-up of wild garlic

Photo by Corina Rainer on Unsplash CC0

Vegetation and the plant community make up the largest part of an ecosystem. Flora has important roles in modifying environmental factors as well as providing an essential food and energy source for animals. Knowing what vegetation is present in a specific area, and the changes to this over a period of time is important to support understanding and decision making which directly effects ecosystems. Our knowledge and understanding of some - often animal - species in the UK is well developed due to the regular monitoring of some specific species, such as bats, which can influence evidence-based decision making. This can be anything from local or national initiatives, to international policy aimed at addressing existential threats to animal species. Given that plants are key ecosystem service providers, it is perhaps surprising that there is relatively little information about many species of vegetation.

The role of plants in a healthy ecosystem

Photo by Aaron Burden from Pexels CC0

Ecosystem services are seen as the variety of benefits gained by humankind from the natural environment. They include the provision of products such as food, or wood for fuel. Regulation of the environment is another form of ecosystem services, for example by providing the correct situation to allow for pollination of plants by bees. Collecting data over an extended period relating to vegetation species will result in more informed environmental decisions to be made to help protect species.

Surveys help us learn more

A vegetation survey in Wood River Valley, Oregon

Natural Resources Conservation Service under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

The collection of information takes place with the monitoring of vegetation through the use of surveys. Monitoring involves repeated measurements, usually of the same locations (sample units), to assess changes in arrangement, structure and condition over time.  These can be at a different scale, such as one square metre or one kilometre. This is known as vegetation dynamics and may also allow the investigation of the processes that influence vegetation change. The continued use of well-designed monitoring information allows comparisons to take place to establish if management or policy objectives are being achieved. This is done by assessing changes which can result in better effective management actions to be developed. 

Much of the data currently available is and has been, gathered in different ways by members of the public - often volunteers and students - which can create some problems! Historically the data from one monitoring survey has not always used the same criteria as the data collected in another. This makes it very difficult to compare the information like-for-like, and this, in turn, makes it difficult for any reliable trends to be established with true confidence.  

A new way of working – get involved!

A mature flower diagram

Mariana Ruiz under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

To address this lack of reliable data a new scheme was launched in the UK in 2015. The National Plant Monitoring Scheme  (NPMS) aims to overcome some of the earlier lack of consistency in vegetation monitoring. This scheme invites members of the public to get involved.

The figure above is that of an imaginary plant with its parts labelled. This will be useful when trying to identify species – but do remember that their size and shapes vary so it can take a while to identify these on different species. Using this along with a plant key will help you to identify plants when you are out and about. 

Where to start...

A close-up of some Primroses

Photo by henry perks on Unsplash CC0

Plant keys are available in both printed and digital formats. There are numerous printed books available, such as:

• The Wild Flower Key - How to identify wildflowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland (Francis Rose, revised by Clare O’Reilly) Warne, 2006 

• Collins Flower Guide (David Streeter) Collins, 2009  

• Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alistair Fitter) Bloomsbury, 2013  

Alternatively, you can opt for an online version (that could be printed out) – such as the Species Identification Guide provided by the National Plant Monitoring Scheme  

There is a range of both free and priced apps, such as Plant Identification or What's that flower?. Hopefully, you will be able to find a format that works for you!

Do remember do not dig up wild plants, even for species that are not rare it is illegal to do so without the landowner’s permission. 

Having read about vegetation surveying and perhaps having had a go you may like to take this further by volunteering for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme  allowing you to be part of this large project to collect useable data across the UK. 

Meet the OU expert

Andy Morris, The Open University
Dr Andy MorrisStaff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Andy Morris, The Open University
Dr Andy MorrisStaff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies

Andy’s background is in social and cultural Geography. His main area of interest centres on the relationships between humans and wildlife, plus how they can challenge and inform understandings of nature and society. His work on modules for The Open University has included writing on subjects such as landscape, national parks, rewilding and wildlife data collection. He is currently researching starling roosts and murmuration watching in Rome, as well as working on a new Level 2 Geography module.

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