Ed Sheeran ‘Ever Green’?

BY ROCHELLE BLAKEMAN

In late December, it appeared that Dr Seuss’ Lorax had a man after his own hairstyle and heart. Ed Sheeran, one of the world’s most popular singer-song writers, announced his plans on BBC Radio London to buy up “as much land in the UK as I possibly can and plant as many trees as I can”. Revealing a penchant for green fingered pastimes he described his 16-acre estate in East Suffolk, “Sheeranville”; credit to his (or perhaps his gardener’s?) horticultural nous: it is home to delightful flora and fauna, a beehive and a plethora of birds, snakes and newts.

The picture is not incongruous with Ed Sheeran’s public image. He has never been a “flashy” pop-star, even after amassing a $200 million fortune; part of his success is arguably in his ability to project a humble, mild-mannered persona to match his trusty acoustic and red chequered shirts that exude your everyday high-school boyfriend. The formula works. People have made Ed Sheeran famous, buying his albums and queuing in the cold to hear him live in concert.

It is therefore in good faith that I call on Sheeran to listen back to the warnings of discord and disharmony that his (perhaps) well-meaning but ultimately ill-conceived rewilding plans will cause the British countryside.

Let’s start with the galling irony of the negative environmental impact if Ed Sheeran goes ahead with his plans, especially if he executes them as whimsically as his words suggest.

In the popular imagination, trees have become so intertwined with all that is good and green that for many people it is so illogical to oppose efforts to plant new ones that questions do not even cross their mind. It would be like having doubts about rescuing abandoned puppies. You could see this mindset in the 2019 General Election when green, environmental pledges turned rapidly into a primeval competition to see which party could plant the biggest, best, most enormous number of trees across the land. The scientific justification behind this is that trees act as effective carbon stores to ameliorate the effects of global warming.

Unfortunately for them, the natural world is not a set of buttons on a computer that, if pressed enough times, can be reset to their liking.

If Ed is going to plant forests, there are complex ecological factors which need to be taken into account to determine whether or not his saplings will grow successfully:

1). Has Ed considered that, across much of British grassland, digging up the soil to plant trees can actually release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than if it had been left alone? Moorlands, peat bogs and grassland are all dense stores of carbon.

2). Has Ed considered that the difference between ‘mixed-forests’ and a tree monoculture could be the difference between the thriving wildlife he envisages and a tree desert? Mixed and native species of trees are agreed by ecologists to be most beneficial to create a healthy woodland teeming with creatures. Has he considered what kind of trees would be more beneficial for which rare species and where?

3). Has Ed considered the evidence that preserving and enhancing ancient woodland (which comprises only 2.5% of UK land) has significant benefits for wildlife over young, newly planted saplings?  

This non-exhaustive list scratches the surface, and I am no ecological expert myself, but I can see that planting trees for the benefit of wildlife requires thorough research, planning and consideration of complex ecological factors. There are significantly more viable and beneficial options for Sheeran to contemplate. He could persuade his neighbours to join him in creating areas for wildlife ‘clusters’, as encouraged by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which could give species a boost whilst not disturbing valuable grassland. He could support the pressurising of land developers to back off ancient woodland a little, who have bought into the convenient idea that neat, tidy tree planting after clearing away old forests to make way for new housing estates is fine and dandy. Simply press ‘refresh’, hey?

Ed Sheeran seemingly gave no specifics in his interview to answer essential questions. Was he merely thinking out loud, or has he acquired knowledge behind the scenes which he did not care to divulge in lest he bored his audience? We simply don’t know; as it stands, if his aim is to “plant as many trees as possible”, the carelessness and industrial scale of the operation which this implies should be concerning for any nature lover.

The most glaringly omitted consideration of all, however, is the impact that Ed Sheeran’s plans could have on British agricultural production: the source of homegrown, local food, which has not been shipped in from thousands of miles away by fossil-fuel guzzling vessels.

Whilst Ed Sheeran did not directly criticise farmers, it is curious that thoughts of farming did not even crop up in connection with wildlife and the countryside.

Welsh farmers have been particularly vocal in their opposition to Sheeran’s plans. They have pointed out that the logical end of his plan is increased reliance on imported food, with all its complications of long food miles and the impossibility of guaranteeing foreign production standards. Equally questionable is the social impact of a rich individual buying up land and farms at rates which a local community cannot financially compete with, another fact of which Sheeran appears blissfully unaware.

Such actions are not mere words, but a reality that is increasingly suffocating Wales’ infamous hills and valleys. Large corporate firms have been buying up Welsh farmland (which tends to be cheaper than English land) at an unprecedented rate in order to plant vast swathes of trees, all so that obtrusive conglomerates can appear to be ‘doing good’ and ‘offsetting’ their carbon woes. The irony would be laughable if it wasn’t so devastating for locals who, as a result, have seen already sparse communities dispersed further, a reduction in the rural economy and young families being priced out of gaining a property of their own. The same thing happened in Wales in the mid-1970s: much land was acquired by compulsory purchase by the Forestry Commission to plant monolithic swathes of conifer trees. Old wounds are being ripped open again.

If Ed Sheeran is so concerned about the health of UK wildlife and loves his country as he claims, he would do well to listen to people with direct experience of a potent mix of the social, economic and environmental impact when tree planting schemes go horribly wrong.

Welsh farmers have been at pains to highlight the aforementioned complexities of planting trees in carbon dense soil and, as such, balance is key. “As many trees as possible” does not honour such balance.

The real concern here is not necessarily Ed Sheeran’s plan alone, but the fact that his actions both follow and lead others into a wider pattern. That is what is troubling.

There is a distinctive sense of “band-wagoning” about tree planting frenzies, and celebrity involvement could give it a more prestigious edge. Like ecologists, many farmers took to social media in an attempt to get Ed Sheeran “on side” by suggesting better ways for him to help the natural world, such as setting up funds to help farmers incorporate ‘nature-friendly’ practices. Others, like my own soul, were more pessimistic:

“The cynical part of me thinks that helping farmers and investing just won’t have the headline or land ownership that he is after.”

In truth, we cannot mind-read to decipher Ed Sheeran’s motivations, but there are indicators that celebrities feel heightened kudos when they express a desire to promote sustainability. Many have managed to turn criticisms of privilege and ‘lecturing from their private jets’ in their favour by pledging to use their influential position to “do something”. Lewis Hamilton, whose career has depended on revving car engines as fast as he can, is vocal about his newfound diehard veganism. Deborah Meaden, multi-millionaire investor and star of Dragon’s Den, has developed a similar obsession with sustainability and an aversion to eating beef. The Music Climate Pact, a pledge to “decarbonise” the music industry in the wake of Cop26, has support from highly influential music labels, including Sony Music Group, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.

These labels have vast, sheer power. If careless tree planting became part of the pledges, their land acquisition would dwarf that of the eccentric guitarist next door with time and money to spare on collecting fields. Rural communities across the world could notice in untold ways.

Pledges to cut carbon emissions today are approached with religious fervour. I question how healthy it is (both for the Earth and our psyche) to count and calculate our carbon footprint so obsessively; to want to measure and off-set every action and every molecule of burnt fuel, as if taming nature’s power is akin to collecting points on a Boots loyalty card.

Ed Sheeran expresses feelings of guilt that his lifestyle has caused harm to the planet, but are these feelings strictly necessary? Had Ed Sheeran not become a musician, which airplanes would not have taken off on their flights to various destinations around the world? Which venues would not have been filled with people cheering to the sound of electric speakers and glowing to flashing lights? Which energy burning hotel rooms would not have been reserved? Edward, you are one among billions; someone might have taken your very place. Perhaps the lad or lass who currently hops around town giving guitar lessons, serving sandwiches by day and gigging at open mics by night; a modern life made possible by miraculous energy nonetheless.

A panicked obsession with cutting carbon emissions ironically often leads celebrities and corporations to make decisions which harm the environment further. Whilst they see the creation of an air-cleansing forest (and breathe a sigh of relief as media pressure subsides), others see that an existing landscape, a unique ecosystem and their relationship with it is en route to destruction. It perpetuates the scapegoating of farmers and those who live close to the land as dispensable enemies of the environment, with metropolitans absolved of their ‘sins’ because they have ‘shown their care’ and ‘taken action’ by planting some trees.

Ed Sheeran, don’t be that guy.

If you truly love British wildlife and the countryside, please consider the muddy, gritty evidence and take action that is proportionate, appropriate to place and in harmony with the vast majority of sensible farming which has cultivated the beauty and fertility of this land for hundreds of years. Racing to plant as many trees as you possibly can, driven by an emotional concoction of guilt, fear, status-anxiety and shame? Please, DON’T!

Rochelle Blakeman studied Classical Studies at King’s College London and recently finished a masters in International Public and Political Communication at the University of Sheffield.