Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow

• United Utilities to plant more than 1 million trees by 2030
• Lancashire pilot project could pave the way for new business venture for local farmers

A big idea is taking shape from tiny beginnings in a field in Lancashire.
United Utilities has begun a pilot project to see whether growing native trees from seed can help meet carbon targets as well as prove a business opportunity for local farmers.

The North West water company has just established a tree nursery on catchment land at its Rivington reservoir near Bolton. The plan is to grow native oak trees from local acorns in a move that will help it meet its tree planting targets over the coming years.

With more and more landowners embracing tree-planting to tackle climate change, there’s a real risk that demand for saplings could outstrip supply in the coming years.

The man behind the idea is Dan Fowler, United Utilities Land Agent at Rivington, and he explained how the pilot scheme came about:
“We have a climate change pledge to plant more than 1 million trees on areas of our land across the North West over the next 10 years.  Not only do they lock up carbon from the atmosphere, they create buffer zones which act as a filter before the water reaches our reservoirs, keeping it cleaner naturally and have other wider biodiversity benefits.

“There are lots of other landowners and organisations with plans for tree-planting too, and we have concerns that there may not be enough existing growers to meet demand, so we decided to grow our own.

“Growing trees from local seed, or acorns in this case, can make for stronger saplings with the right disease resistance which you wouldn’t necessarily find if you had to go further afield.”

Local people have been helping the United Utilities team to collect around 20,000 acorns from oak trees in the Rivington area, which have now been planted at the site.

Dan is from a farming family in north Lancashire and a self-confessed farm equipment ‘anorak’.

Working with colleagues in the United Utilities Woodland team, they came up with a genius low budget solution for mechanising the acorn planting involved a classic Ferguson 1950s potato planter.  Dan added:
“With a bit of modification to attach it to a modern tractor, it did the job for us in just one day.  I would not have wanted to plant all those acorns by hand!”

The acorns are expected to start sprouting soon and in two years the saplings could be large enough to plant out in their permanent home. Dan says that he has also earmarked some land at the nursery for growing chestnut trees from conkers as well.

“A lot of our land is let to tenant farmers, and we hope that we will be able to work together to fulfil the tree planting targets that will benefit all involved. If our pilot project is a success we might be able to demonstrate to our tenants how this kind of scheme could be replicated on other land with the prospect of  growing trees as a sustainable business venture for them, especially with the present uncertainty about farming post-Brexit. The Government is already looking at how farmers can produce “public goods” so this could be a win-win.

“It’s amazing to think that in decades to come, landscapes across the UK could be graced with the descendants of Rivington’s magnificent oak trees.”

United Utilities joined forces with the rest of the water industry this week to set out its plans to go Carbon neutral by the end of this decade.

Tree-planting, green vehicles and home-grown renewable power are all included in the ambitious plans for the North West.

Water UK’s Net Zero 2030 Routemap is 20 years ahead of the UK Government’s own legally binding target of 2050 and forms the world’s first detailed plan to get an entire industry sector to net zero.

The Routemap can be viewed here: https://www.water.org.uk/routemap2030/