Greening movements such as Rewilding Britain advocate the reestablishment of natural processes to reverse ecological damage and provide nature with the opportunity to recover1. At the NHS Forest, 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 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 predators2. Plastic shelters are popular, as their resilience to the surrounding environment allows for the extended protection of young trees without breakdown due to sunlight damage3. However, there are many concerns about their use, as once a tree outgrows its shelter, the guards are often forgotten, resulting in the scattering of plastic pieces in the soil4.

So, how can we minimise the environmental impact of tree guards while 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 their sites. 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 environmental impacts of plastic tree guards. It is essential that manufacturers properly label guards for appropriate recycling disposal according to current guidelines, so that 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.

1. “Principles of Rewilding,” Rewilding Britain, 2019
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