The Woodland Trust has pledged to end the use of new plastic tree guards at its sites by the end of the year, to make tree planting more sustainable.
The conservation charity, a major UK tree planter with hopes to plant 10 million saplings each year to 2025, wants to drive “permanent change” in the tree planting sector with its switch away from plastic protectors.
The move by the trust, which currently collects the plastic tubes from its sites and recycles them, comes after trials of green alternatives for protecting young saplings from grazing by deer or rabbits in the early stages of growth.
A major trial of 14 products at its Avoncliff site in Wiltshire has monitored protectors made of cardboard, British wool, poly-lactic acid and plant starch, and bio-based polymers, to see how effective they are.
The charity has been working with academics, manufacturers, foresters and conservationists to build up a body of research on plastic-free alternatives for tree planting.
Alternatives to the plastic tree shelters will now be scaled up dramatically by the end of the year, although a small number of plastic tubes in good condition will be reused for the time being, the charity said.
The Trust also said it was focusing on removing any need for tree tubes, with measures such as allowing trees to seed and grow naturally in ways that make them more likely to survive, or encouraging birds of prey to keep rodent numbers in balance.
Woodland Trust chief executive Darren Moorcroft said: “As one of the nation’s largest tree planters, by committing to go plastic free in our terms of the use of tree shelters we are set to be the trailblazers in this field and catalysing a permanent change to the tree-planting world.”
He said trees soaked up carbon dioxide to help the climate crisis and created new habitats to combat the nature crisis, but without protection, young saplings did not stand much chance.
Mr Moorcroft said: “Across the sector, plastics have long been the first port of call turned to as the option due to their longevity and ability to protect the saplings from predators.“But of course, they don’t biodegrade and are not environmentally friendly.
“We all need millions of new trees, want to turn the industry on its head once and for all, and we have the chance to finally solve this puzzle through new sustainable approaches to tree establishment.”
Ian Stanton, head of sustainability at the Woodland Trust, said: “We have been trialling a wide range of alternative plastic-free products across a number of sites within our estate for some time and new innovative products are being added to these trials all the time.
“Now it’s time to step up innovation on this with our plastic-free pledge.
“Through these trials we are identifying products that are suitable to be scaled up across our estate.
“This, combined with innovative processes that avoid the need for tree tubes at all, will enable us to go plastic-free from the end of this year and we are funding research to find viable alternatives.”
He said the trust planned to plant 2.3 million saplings on its own estate by 2025, and up to half would need protection from deer or they would get eaten before they can become established.
But he added: “The scourge of plastic pollution and the climate emergency make this problem urgent – we are determined to lead the way by using our estate as a living lab for sustainability innovation.”
The National Trust has recently announced trials of alternatives to plastic tree guards, including using “crates” built from locally-felled diseased trees, using existing shrubs to protect young trees, and cardboard tubes, as it ramps up its woodland creation efforts.