For over twenty years, conservation charity Moor Trees have been planting native trees back into the area of Dartmoor in a bid to re-wild the local landscape, build biodiversity and help restore the balance between open moorland and the rich forested valleys.

The Devon-based charity works with volunteers to grow trees from locally collected seed before planting them as new woodland on both public and private land. We spoke to Adam Owen, Director of Moor Trees about collecting local provenance seeds, developing educational training programmes and the importance of re-engaging with the natural environment around us.

Tell us about Moor Trees and why the charity was created.

Moor Trees was started in 1999 by some like-minded individuals who really wanted to re-wild Dartmoor. Rewilding has been something that was talked about for many decades in the conservation community. They obviously saw Dartmoor as a somewhat bleaker landscape because a lot of its woodlands had been lost through clearances and grazing. They set up a charity with the aim to engage the community. Working with local volunteers, they would go out into the woods and collect native, broad leaf tree seed and bring it back to grow into trees. Then they would work with landowners to get those trees planted back out into Dartmoor and South Devon.

How has Moor Trees grown and evolved as a charity?

It hasn’t changed too much since the beginning. It’s scaled up and we’ve been really fortunate recently to receive a large grant, which means we can improve the infrastructure within our tree nurseries. For many years our nurseries used to be all over the place - they were loosely termed tree nurseries but they could be someone’s back garden, an allotment, in the grounds of a school. For some years now Moor Trees has had two distinct tree nurseries where we focus our resources. Historically, we’ve been growing 5,000 to 10,000 trees a year but now we’ve been increasing production and we’re currently growing about 25,000 trees and getting about 15,000 of those out into the landscape every year. Certain trees we can get to grow to the right dimensions in a year while other species take about two years.

Even with this growth our principle remains the same; it’s connecting people with nature, getting volunteers and the local community involved in growing trees and getting them back into the landscape.Why is repopulating native broad leaf woodland so important?

Overall, any native woodland is far, far richer for biodiversity than introduced forest as it has had so much longer for evolution to develop the associations of trees with lichens, insects, birds and larger mammals etc. When the landscape is stripped of native trees the connectivity is gone. Obviously, there are lots of animals, insects and indeed plants and flowers all interlinked with certain woodland habitats. Our native broad leaf forests are very isolated, fragmented and small; without management and without connectivity they’re dying. More woodland and hedgerows need to be planted so that once again the existing woodlands can link up. If you imagine woodland A is here and woodland B is ten miles away, it’s very difficult for animals to translocate. They are isolated and don’t get the opportunity to mix with more of the same species. This means their genetic pool is decreased reducing genetic resistance to disease, for example, and so , a disease can wipe out that entire community as they have low immunity and because they can’t move away from it. Whereas, if you have connectivity, it’s incredibly effective - animals can meet their own type from different woods, creating greater genetic variations and a stronger resilience.

What are the main challenges in running Moor Trees?

The challenge is always funding. So long as we’ve got funding, we can employ staff and if we can employ staff we can run the volunteer programme and if we can do that then we can go out and collect seed.

Nature offers its own challenges, too. Some years certain trees don’t provide much seed, and other years they provide lots of seed, almost too much seed, so we’ve got to find that balance to ensure we’ve got enough trees and a certain variety of tree species growing in the nurseries.

How will the Green Recovery Challenge fund impact the work Moor Trees is doing?

With this grant we're now able to recruit new staff who are qualified in horticulture. They will bring new skills into the charity because previously we haven't had horticulture qualified staff. What is a typical day like for you and the team?

It varies depending on the day of the week and the season. September through October we go out and do seed collecting. Once we've got those, we're processing the seed. We collect over 50,000 acorns for example. So, there will be a lot of seed processing going on. And each tree has a different seed type and there are different processes completed for each. Acorns, for example, can just be left in earth to germinate themselves. Others such as crab apples you need to cut to get the pips out. From there the seeds are refrigerated or sit in leaf mould to break their dormancy and enable them to germinate.

Around this time of year, a lot of those seeds are starting to germinate and volunteers are putting the seed into seed trays or pots, monitoring and watering them. As they get bigger, we transplant them. Once they’ve got to a certain size we put them into nursery beds or cells (a special type of plant pot for growing trees). And from November to March it’s tree planting, tree planting, tree planting! There’s a seasonal cycle but there are varied jobs throughout the year.

What next for Moor Trees?

With the money from the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, by 2022, we will grow 50,000 trees a year. We will increase the number of staff and improve our irrigation systems and infrastructure for our staff and volunteers. Those physical changes to the organisation help our tree nurseries so we can grow many more trees. And by growing more trees, that means we can plant many more of them. We would also like to expand our education programme with more learning resources and outreach work at schools, universities and also with our communities.

For more information on Moor Trees and their vision or to donate, volunteer, fundraise or mitigate for your own carbon emissions, see their website.

Images courtesy of Moor Trees.

Join us for an event on Sunday 14th March with practicing artist and Royal Drawing School tutor Rosie Vohra in a reflective workshop exploring the sensory qualities of nature. Tickets cost £10, which will be donated in its entirety to Dartmoor-based charity Moor Trees.

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