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Tree establishment: survey of tree officers

Author:  Daisy Brasington
  01/06/2023
Last Updated:  01/06/2023

Daisy Brasington


In November 2022, supported by a bursary from Fund4Trees, a survey of tree officers was carried out at the National Tree Officers Conference in Telford.

The research aimed to form a cursory impression of existing post-planting maintenance programmes and the perceived sufficiency of available revenue funding. The researcher also wanted to know whether tree officers perceive these factors as worthy of further research and whether there are other factors they would investigate in relation to urban tree establishment.

Public (Local Authority/Highways) results Chart 1 Private (Commercial/Real Estate) results Chart 2 Third (Charity/Non-profit) results Chart 3

Figure 1. Agreement with the statement ‘A lack of revenue funding to ensure post-planting maintenance is an issue impacting successful tree establishment’ by sector.

Participation on the day was made possible via distributed information slips containing a QR code linked to the survey. To improve the response rate, the survey was further advertised through selected social media pages and industry mailing lists for a month after the conference. Twenty tree officers completed the survey. All participants answered all the multiple-choice questions on the survey apart from Question 4, which one respondent only answered partially.

Question 1 asked tree officers whether all newly planted trees, excluding woodland plantings, receive a specified post-planting maintenance programme within their local authorities. Sixteen out of 20 respondents (80%) said their trees did receive a specified post-planting maintenance programme and 4 respondents (20%) said they did not.

Question 2 asked how satisfied tree officers were with the current post-planting maintenance programmes that their newly planted trees receive. The modal (most frequent) response was ‘satisfied’ and 55% of respondents answered either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’. 30% of respondents answered either ‘dissatisfied’, ‘very dissatisfied’, or that ‘they did not have a post-planting maintenance programme for newly planted trees’.

In Question 3, tree officers were asked how satisfied they are with the amount of revenue funding available for post-planting maintenance of newly planted trees. Again, ‘satisfied’ was the modal response, with 45% answering ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’. 45% answered ‘dissatisfied’, ‘very dissatisfied’, or that ‘they did not have a post-planting maintenance programme for newly planted trees’.

Question 4 asked tree officers to consider the UK as a whole, rather than just their own local authority. They were asked to consider whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘A lack of revenue funding to ensure post-planting maintenance is an issue impacting successful tree establishment’ within the public (e.g. local authority/highways), private (e.g. commercial/real estate), and third (e.g. charity/non-profit) sectors. The skewed distribution of responses demonstrates agreement that this is perceived as an issue across all three sectors. 89% of respondents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that this is an issue in the private sector. 80% ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that this is an issue in the public sector, and 63% of respondents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that this issue also affects the third sector. Frequency data as a percentage for each response is shown in Figure 1.

Question 5, the final multiple-choice question, sought to discover how important, in comparison to other arboricultural research, the tree officers considered research relating to tree establishment, research into the availability of post-planting maintenance funding, and research into new urban planting mortality rates.

The skewed distribution of all three responses indicates respondents generally considered the topics of some importance. Of the three, ‘research into new urban planting mortality rates’ had the highest mean score of 3.85 (where a score of 1 signified least importance, and 5 signified highest importance). Research relating to tree establishment had a mean score of 3.80. Research into the availability of post-planting maintenance funding had the lowest mean score at 3.60.

Question 6 was an open-answer question. It asked tree officers to list any questions they would ask if they were investigating: (a) new urban tree planting survival rates; and (b) the efficacy of tree establishment in urban environments. Eighteen out of 20 tree officers responded to question 6a and 13 out of 20 responded to 6b. Participants often responded about the topic or listed features worthy of investigation rather than listing their own specific questions. Their answers are included verbatim in the full report (see the link at the end of this article).

Although there wasn’t an enormous amount of text to analyse, a thematic analysis of the responses was attempted in order to understand if there were any prevalent themes. The text was assigned descriptive codes based on interpreted meaning. Descriptive codes which occurred more than twice in the responses were as follows:

Q6a: species selection, planting medium, stock type, watering frequency, soil condition, survival measurement, tree pit type, maintenance duration (years), watering, watering volume, aftercare, maintenance frequency (visits/year), root type on planting.

Q6b: watering volume, soil condition, watering frequency, measurement of the long-term impact of variables, size, species selection, watering duration (years).

Conclusions

The results from Question 1 are encouraging (80% of trees receiving post-planting maintenance), but this response should not be interpreted as a representation of the whole country as a different sampling methodology would be needed to accurately represent the UK-wide situation. Prior to surveying at the NTOC, the researcher had already discussed the risk of collecting ungeneralisable data. There is a possibility that the councils who can afford to send tree officers to the conference (and furthermore, who have dedicated tree officers at all) may be better resourced than other local authorities.

This survey showed a high level of agreement among surveyed tree officers that, across the UK as a whole, ‘A lack of revenue funding to ensure post-planting maintenance is an issue impacting successful tree establishment’. The private sector was perceived to be most affected, followed by the public sector and then the third sector.

In terms of other arboricultural research, 75% of tree officers surveyed agree that ‘urban planting mortality rates’ is an important subject for further investigation. 70% of tree officers agree that urban tree establishment generally is an important topic for future research and 65% agree that research into the availability of revenue funding is important.

In the results for Question 6, themes of ‘physical factors at the time of planting’ (such as species selection, soil condition and tree stock size) and ‘monitoring’ (such as mortality rate by year) were very prevalent. Another prevalent theme was physical factors associated with maintenance (such as watering volume and frequency). The theme of accountability for maintenance was also evident.

Discussion

One of the concluding remarks in Gilbertson and Bradshaw’s 1985 investigation into newly planted urban tree mortality was: ‘Considering the huge capital outlay involved in providing large numbers of trees in inner cities, it would seem worthwhile contemplating changing the emphasis towards greater care in planting and maintenance, with careful monitoring of tree performance to understand what is happening to the trees rather than see a large percentage of investment lost by tree death and expensive renewal programmes, as well as by overall poor growth.’

Similar concluding remarks were made about the results from Trees in Towns II. Published in 2009, Trees in Towns II was a comprehensive survey of urban trees in England and their condition and management. Question C10 asked respondents to estimate the percentage of their local authority’s newly planted trees that received post-planting maintenance. Results revealed that, when the survey was conducted in mid-2004, only 40% of local authorities were providing post-planting maintenance for 90% or more of their trees, and 22% were only able to maintain less than 20% of their newly planted trees. The authors wrote: ‘The question needs to be asked why these local authorities are continuing to plant trees when there is very little or no provision for maintenance to ensure the trees survive.’

This sentiment has repeatedly been articulated by highly experienced arboricultural consultants and nursery professionals throughout the last decade, most recently by Keith Sacre and Kenton Rogers in their Arboricultural Association articles and conference seminars dedicated to addressing the UK’s ‘planting by numbers’ problem. It is surprising that despite all the subsequent advances in monitoring technology, we don’t currently have a consistently accurate picture of how, and to what extent, mortality rates of new tree planting are being measured by local authorities.

Although approximately half of local authorities in the UK now have tree strategies (Doick et al., 2022), that in itself is not necessarily synonymous with local authorities having a specified post-planting maintenance programme, or whether such a programme conforms to BS8545 standards, or whether the outcomes of post-planting maintenance are being monitored with the aim of improving survival rates and growing healthy trees. Some of the questions posed to local authorities regarding tree mortality in Trees in Towns II should be reinvestigated today to see how results compare over a decade later.

Further investigation into typical newly planted urban tree mortality is both timely and necessary for quantifying expected ecosystem service contributions. Comments generated during this survey suggest that there are professional working groups with representatives from the urban arboricultural sector working on this presently. This should be followed up so that further research by Fund4Trees complements existing research strands.

Whether the availability of revenue funding for new planting maintenance influences newly planted tree mortality is not currently known. Neither is it known whether currently captured data would make investigating this feasible in all local authorities. This should be investigated further as it is perceived by arboricultural professionals to be an issue affecting the private and public sectors, and likely the third sector too.

The researcher would like to extend gratitude to all those who made undertaking this micro-survey possible: to Fund4Trees for the bursary, to the Association of Tree Officers for allowing us to survey at their national conference and to the Institute of Chartered Foresters for assistance in following up responses. Final and important thanks must also go to Dr Mark Johnston for his ongoing guidance, including the suggestion not to over-interpret these initial survey results but to use them to develop further robust research in this area, which is certainly needed.

The full report can be found on the Fund4Trees website via bit.ly/3SZOfd9

Daisy Brasington

Daisy Brasington (BSc Psychology) works as a freelance photographer and communication strategist serving the adaptation-focused economy. In 2019 she joined Crown Tree Consultancy and is now working on a response to Fund4Tree’s proposed research into ‘The Efficacy of Tree Establishment in Urban Environments’. If you have any comments or suggestions concerning this research please email daisy@crowntrees.co.uk using the subject title ‘Urban Tree Establishment’.


This article was taken from Issue 201 Summer 2023 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.