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New carbon-cutting hybrid trees to be planted at Euston Estate and at three Norfolk sites

A new species of carbon-cutting hardwood trees will be planted in Suffolk and Norfolk after the Forestry Commission gave the go-ahead.

Carbon Plantations, a new business backed by Aether Energy Ltd, has been granted permission to plant the UK's first large-scale Paulownia hybrid plantations in the two counties.

Nigel Couch, chairman of Carbon Plantations, said: “We all know the urgency of taking action to tackle the climate and ecological crises. Increasing tree planting is a key part of the government’s net zero strategy. Farmers planting trees on their land is as old as the hills, but new varieties can also offer exciting and progressive solutions.

A Paulownia plantation in Spain (53859804)
A Paulownia plantation in Spain (53859804)

“No other tree can sequester as much CO2 as quickly as the Paulownia and its wood is known as the aluminium of the timber industry. This new hybrid variety offers huge potential benefits for biodiversity, carbon capture and UK hardwood supply.

"These first four plantations alone are expected to sequester over 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 in their lifetime – it’s a win-win for the climate and for farmers.”

The hybrid trees can absorb up to 10 times as much CO2 during their 80-year lifetime as new mixed native woodland.

Meanwhile, the timber has multiple applications in light construction, reducing demand for imported timber products and managed plantations will include new native broadleaf plantings and grass swards to boost biodiversity, regenerate soils and improve water efficiency.

Paulownia trees are widespread in Asia, but the new Paulownia variety is an infertile hybrid which has been bred to grow in the Northern European climate and can tolerate temperatures as low as -22C.

It has already been grown successfully in plantations in Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as on other continents.

The Paulownia tree is thought to be one of the fastest growing trees in the world, reaching up to eight metres in five years, with an equally efficient rate of CO2 absorption.

The infertile trees are grown from cuttings, so there is minimal risk of invasiveness. They are deciduous and will be planted alongside additional mixed native woodland species, designed to UKFS (UK Forestry Standards).

The understory will be sown with a native grass seed mix enhanced with wildflowers and legumes to boost biodiversity and attract pollinators, other insects and birds.

The land used for the plantations is mainly agricultural land which has previously been intensively farmed, with high inputs of pesticides and fertilisers.

The soil, degraded over time, will benefit from regeneration and restructuring thanks to the deep roots of the Paulownia trees and the falling leaves which act as a mulch to enrich the understory. Over time the land will soak up more water, reducing the risk of flooding by naturally increasing its organic matter content.

As well as sequestering CO2, the Paulownia plantations will provide a locally grown source of hardwood timber, displacing the need to import wood from abroad, further reducing emissions from transport and logistics.

The timber is lightweight and strong, more fire resistant than other species and does not warp easily. It also has good insulation properties.

The four pioneer projects granted approval are on the Euston Estate, in Suffolk, and South Pickenham, Westacre and Rutterfords Estates, in Norfolk. Each has been through a rigorous regulatory process and a full environmental impact assessment.

The Forestry Commission has imposed strict conditions related to site monitoring, taking the lead from Forest Research.

Overall, 468 hectare will be planted across the four estates. While the exact proportions vary slightly on each site, the planting mixture will be approximately 75 per cent Paulownia hybrids, 15 per cent native woodland and 10 per cent grassland as approved by the Forestry Commission.

Collectively the four plantations are expected to sequester more than 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 over their 35-year minimum lifecycle.

Carbon Plantations has a target of planting another 600ha of Paulownia each year for the following two years.

The first timber harvests can take place after six to seven years, when the plantation is thinned, with a 10-year cycle typically following. At the end of the plantation’s 35-year lease, it can either remain as permanent woodland or be returned to its previous agricultural use – in consultation with the landowner and the Forestry Commission – and subject to legislation at the time.

Planting is expected to start in May 2022. The trees will be supplied by WeGrow, the leading European specialist in sustainable tree development, which will also oversee the initial planting of the plantations, supported by a local team of silviculturists and agronomists.