Tree guards and the environment - how can we promote reforestation and reduce the environmental impact of plastic?

Greening movements such as the Rewilding Britain Campaign advocate the reestablishment of natural processes to reverse ecological damage and provide nature with the opportunity to recover.(1) We’ve been looking into how organisations and individuals can follow these principles while making use of an important tool in forestry management: tree guards.

Information from major organisations involved with forestry and planting trees in the UK such as the Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission and the Tree Council indicate that the use of tree guards (or tree shelters) is a necessary practice in many instances. Tree guards, including those made of polypropylene - a type of plastic, protect young trees against weed, herbicide and animal predators.(2)  Plastic shelters are a good option given their resilience to the surrounding environment. Such resilience allows for the extended protection of young trees without breakdown due to sunlight damage.(3)  However, there are many concerns linked to the use of tree guards. Once a tree outgrows its shelter, plastic guards are often forgotten, resulting in the scattering of plastic pieces in the soil.(4) 

This brings us to the next key question: How can we minimize the impact that tree guards have on the environment whilst protecting young trees?

The Woodland Trust recommends outlining a very specific management plan for these guards. This is important given the low availability of durable alternatives to plastic and the common use of guards. This management plan should consider how long guards will need to be in place, who will remove them, and the budget needed toward these activities.

“Experienced forestry landowners are used to removing tree guards, and it’s unlikely that you would find tree guards left indefinitely on sites owned by these landowners.  Such landowners have management plans in place for their sites, and this will include provision to remove the guards after a certain number of years (the actual length of time depends on various criteria).  Where tree guards appear to be abandoned, it’s usually either because planting was done by an inexperienced landowner, because there was no budget assigned for follow-up management (a common issue along new roadside plantings, for example) or because the owner believes the guards to be degradable.”
– Hannah Pacey, Project Officer at the Woodland Trust

Besides an established management plan, other aspects are also important when controlling the impact that plastic tree guards can have on the environment. It is essential that manufacturers properly label guards for appropriate recycling disposal according to current guidelines. This information helps landowners know how to manage their plastic. Furthermore, when possible manufactures should strive to produce tree guards out of recycled plastic. These are all important steps towards reducing new plastic production and removing plastic from nature.

What is your experience with alternative materials or methods for protecting young trees and the environment? Let us know your strategies and how you or your organisation has dealt with this challenge. Contact andriele@sustainablehealthcare.org.uk

(1) “Principles of Rewilding,” Rewilding Britain, 2019, Access at https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/.
(2)  M. J. Potter, Treeshelters, Forestry Commission Handbook 7 (London: HMSO, 1991).
(3) Potter.
(4) Simon Place, “Plastic with a Purpose,” Institute of Chartered Foresters, 2018.