The Spectator's Notes

A tree is for centuries, not just for COP26

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

We are being urged — and, in some cases, paid — by the government to plant more trees. Actually, this happens most years. I can even remember ‘Plant a tree in ’73. Plant one more in ’74’. It is a bit like saying ‘Have more babies’, without any provision for their care once born. It all depends which trees, where you plant them and how you tend them. If you walk through the country nowadays, or near new-build housing estates where trees have been planted in ‘mitigation’, you will see large numbers of saplings dead or dying, still in their tree guards, planted too close together and then forgotten. New trees need protection from rabbits, deer, weeds and competition. As a dog is not just for Christmas but for life, so a hardwood tree is not just for COP26, but for centuries. Besides, tree-planting can do ecological harm. Great damage — especially to now-fashionable peat — was done to the Flow Country in Scotland in the 1970s by the heavily subsidised planting of conifers there. According to the Sussex Wildlife Trust, the county lost 80 per cent of its heathland in a century, half of that to tree-planting. And ‘chalk grassland can have about 40 species of sensitive plant per square metre’, far fewer if trees are planted. The simplest and most sustainable way of getting more trees is probably just to pay landowners not to plant new ones, but to let existing ones seed themselves in ungrazed fields. You will get first sycamores and thorns, then oaks or beech; possibly even nightingales. But there is also the question of timescale. If the preachers of climate emergency are right, it is already too late even to plant softwoods.

David Heathcoat-Amory, formerly a government minister, writes to me about his small hydro scheme at his Scottish estate, Glenfernate. It ‘provides our electricity and also exports to the grid’. He installed it in 2012 under the Feed in Tariff (FIT) scheme, which pays renewable generators a subsidy for each kilowatt hour generated. ‘It was frankly much too generous. I get 24p for each unit generated, for 20 years, increased for inflation each year. The present wholesale price of electricity is about 5p. In addition, I can sell the electricity.’ FIT was invented by Ed Miliband when Labour environment secretary and continued by the Cameron coalition. No one criticised it. The scheme, David continues, ‘prompted a gold rush of renewable generators, particularly solar. The cost of factory-made solar panels was falling fast, not anticipated by the scheme. The scheme was eventually shut to new entrants in 2019. The cost of carbon saved is far, far higher than for nuclear power’. Electricity customers end up paying by a complicated adjustment process. ‘As a beneficiary,’ he concludes, ‘I shouldn’t really complain. But it is strange that a cash transfer mechanism from the poor to the rich should have got through the political system with no opposition.’ This is happening once more: ‘We are adopting more ambitious carbon reduction targets without a clue about how to achieve them. And there is a new coalition in favour of big state spending.’ Can anyone show that he is wrong?


Friends have sent me an article by ‘Charles Moore’ which is circulating on the internet. Flatteringly, they tend to doubt that I wrote it. It consists of bad-taste jokes about a new mosque in Bradford. Example: ‘I propose that two nightclubs be opened next door to the mosque; thereby promoting tolerance from within the mosque. We could call one of the clubs, which would be gay, “The Turban Cowboy”, and the other, a topless bar, would be called “You Mecca Me Hot”.’ Ho, ho, ho, but — for the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers say, and for the avoidance of retribution — I hereby disclaim authorship.

An annoying feature of the row about slavery is the suggestion that the British had never confronted the issue until the death of George Floyd. I have just rediscovered my childhood Jackdaws. Published in the 1960s by Jonathan Cape, these were a series of folders on major historical subjects. They were aimed at oldish children or young teenagers, and they contained copies of contemporary materials. Jackdaw No. 1, for example, was about the Battle of Trafalgar and included the Times’s page of 7 November 1805 which printed the news of victory, a letter by Nelson written with his left hand, and so on. The first 12 Jackdaw subjects included Magna Carta, the Pilgrim Fathers, and the Slave Trade and its abolition. (Later subjects reached less-travelled territory such as Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, the Merchant Adventurers and the Gordon Riots. The one about the assassination of President Kennedy was ‘recommended for adults and older children only’.) They were extremely well put together. Unlike the textbooks of that period, they introduced one to the vital idea that history is based on the evidence of primary sources. In the case of the slave trade, the folder contains primary-source ‘accounts of the numbers of negroes delivered to the islands of Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua’ between 1698 and 1701, pictures of slave life, the famous plan of the slaving ship Brookes and much more. The sources come with eight ‘broadsheets’ giving short modern accounts of slavery issues including ‘The Middle Passage’, ‘The Men with a Conscience’ and ‘Why did it take so long?’. The package made a great impression on me. It spoke directly, with no concealment or downplaying.

As life creeps back to normality, I realise that one of the things I have missed most during Covid has been singing. This may sound strange, since I am a poor singer. But my lack of aptitude means I miss it the more. A good singer can sing his heart out at home. A bad one seeks safety in numbers. This is provided in church. But Covid bans congregational singing. We are also forbidden to kneel or stand. This loss of the physical dimension of worship definitely damages its spiritual dimension too.

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