Less than three months ago, I drew attention (in “Making The News”i) to what seems to me to be an increasing tendency for organisations to generate a “news story” by the simple expedient of issuing a press release, which will be picked up by the mainstream media. If the press release has a climate change angle, then so much the better – the likes of the Guardian and the BBC will happily run with it, by giving it a sensationalist headline and turning it into a major story, possibly in a prominent position on their website.
This is what happened regarding Storm Arwen, although it seems to have taken the BBC quite a few weeks to realise that there was potential in a press release to turn it into a story of climate alarmism. On 14th December 2021, Scottish Forestry issued a press releaseii with a fairly prosaic heading – “Forest industries work together to recover from Storm Arwen”. Maybe it was the lack of a sensationalist headline that left it languishing in an inbox for a while, but eventually somebody at the BBC must have read it and grasped the opportunity it offered. As it turned out, Scottish Forestry’s press release contained the sort of news that the BBC can work with:
Meetings have already taken place between the organisations to start planning the recovery of at least 4,000 hectares of woodland that have been affected by the storm.
Gold dust! Even better, the Notes To News Editors at the foot of the press release advises that:
4,000 ha is roughly equivalent to 8 million trees.
And so a BBC headline was born:
The articleiii written under that headline is rather more dramatic than the press release that spawned it, and it had a gestation period of a couple of months, finally appearing on the BBC website on 16th February 2022. Perhaps it took two months to find information and track down people who would offer up useful quotes. The Scottish Forestry press release included the obligatory obeisance to climate change in the form of a quote from Scottish Environment Minister Màiri McAllan:
Storm Arwen provided a salutary lesson of the power of nature and the challenge of climate change. Our people suffered and so, too, did our natural environment.
Other than that, however, the press release was understated and factual, a report on the co-operation between Scottish Forestry, Confor (the trade body for forestry and wood-using companies) and FLS (Forestry and Land Scotland). It also talked about woodland managers being able to use satellite data for the first time, to obtain understanding of where the worst damage had occurred without the need for potentially dangerous site visits. Basically, the press release was less about climate change and more about blowing Scottish Forestry’s trumpet (possibly with justification) for the calm and efficient way in which it, together with others, was dealing with the situation:
Action to fast track and simplify the paperwork around Felling Permissions and Forest Management Plans has been undertaken to help woodland managers tackle trees that were affected by windblow.
FLS began discussions with its timber customers straight after Storm Arwen hit to determine market availability, volume requirements and species demand. The agency, which manages the national forests, is also compiling more detailed information on areas, volumes, species and damage types in order to prioritise areas for harvesting and sale.
FLS has considerable experience in dealing with similar challenges and its long standing customer partnerships will provide strong support and assistance in repairing the damage caused by the storm.
Most of the trees that have been flattened will be removed over the next year and sent to wood processors across Scotland. In time, the forests will be replanted.
However, I suppose that’s not much of a story. This is a story (an untold one, apparently, until the BBC got its hands on it):
It is the untold story of the winter storms. More than eight million trees have been brought down and many are now threatened by another two named storms bearing down on Britain.
Forest managers warn that already “catastrophic” damage will be made worse by Storms Dudley and Eunice.
There are warnings that the heating climate is making our weather more severe and unpredictable, and that management and planting strategies must adapt more quickly.
The BBC also wrote:
After Storm Arwen in November, 4,000 hectares of woodland were blown down – estimated to be eight million trees.
However, that is not exactly true (where are the BBC Disinformation Correspondents when you need them?).
In Notes to News Editors, Scottish Forestry say this at the end of the press release:
The 4,000 ha also includes trees that are still standing adjacent to windblown areas but will need to be felled because they are now more vulnerable as their root systems have been weakened.
4,000 ha is roughly equivalent to 8 million trees.
So the claim that “4,000 hectares of woodland were blown down – estimated to be eight million trees” is an exaggeration. We don’t know from the press release just how many trees were blown down, but it wasn’t 4,000 hectares worth (estimated to be 8 million). Instead, 8 million is the total number of trees estimated to be affected, as an unspecified number needed to be felled because they have been rendered more vulnerable due to the loss of adjacent trees that were blown down.
In a story of this nature, context is also important. Whoever was responsible at Scottish Forestry for the press release, was all too aware of that. So much so that they went out of their way to ensure that the apparently huge number of 8 million trees affected, directly or indirectly, by the storm should be viewed in proportion to some salient statistics. Once more, Notes to News Editors tells us something informative:
Scotland creates around 11,000 hectares of new woodland each year – that’s around 22 million new trees. Added to that, around 40 million trees are planted every year to simply restock areas of woodland that are harvested.
Putting it into context, 8 million trees may have been affected from Storm Arwen but around 62 million trees in total are planted every year. Scotland’s forests and woodlands cover around 1.45 million hectares – that’s around 2.9 billion trees.”
Funnily enough, the BBC forgot to mention that. And, despite the sensationalist headline, it’s not all bad news from the BBC (but the good news is saved until the end of the article, which many casual surfers won’t read):
However, the keepers of the woods do point out that it’s not all bad. Mr Tanner picks at the earth-clogged roots of a fallen tree.
“Look at this gap, it’s ideal for a wren to nest. There is hope for the woods because there is natural regeneration. Over there we’ve got some hazel coming through, a bit of ash.”
Many of the felled trees can be sold for timber – although industry experts do say wind-blown trees are often harder to recover and tend to fetch a lower price. Some deadfall will be allowed to rot, creating new habitat. Different species can be planted in the gaps the fallen trees have left to create more diversity.
Mr Archer says that it’s vital to keep planting trees – even though they can blow down.
Alert readers will have spotted that the BBC headline was to the effect that “More than eight million trees [were] lost this winter in the UK”. Of course, the Scottish Forestry press release which led to the BBC producing the article (and which was linked to by the BBC during the course of its article) referred only to trees lost in Scotland. So what’s the UK angle? Well, the beginning of the article is taken up with interviews of forestry workers in, and photographs from, Cumbria. And yet the article nowhere mentions the number of trees affected by Storm Arwen in England (and doesn’t mention Wales or Northern Ireland at all). The most that the BBC came up with was:
Since then [i.e. since Storm Arwen], Malik and Corrie have struck and the damage is now estimated to be 7,000 hectares – the equivalent of around 10,000 football pitches.
The source of that claim isn’t stated, nor is a number put on the trees thus affected. Perhaps the BBC reporter had as much difficulty as I have had in finding comparable information for the rest of the UK. What I did find readily enough, however, is an online leafletiv with this title: “Forestry Commission Key Performance Indicators Headline Performance Update 31 December 2021”.
This little leaflet provides some very useful further context. From it we learn:
The area of woodland in England is 1,320 thousand hectares at 31 March 2021. The March 2021 figure is an increase of 2 thousand hectares on the previous year, and the total is 10.1% of the land area of England.
Add that to the Scottish numbers (and add them to the Welsh and Northern Irish numbers too, if you can find them). The leaflet also tells us that woodland coverage in England was at its lowest around the start of the First World War, and has broadly doubled in a little over 100 years from a low of 5%. If you double the number of trees then, all things being equal, you’ll probably double the number of trees affected by storms. And as we all know, tree-planting is ongoing:
An area of 136 hectares of new planting of woodland was reported in the third quarter of 2021-22 bringing the year-to-date total to 992 hectares (after rounding).
Add that to the Scottish numbers, and dramatic though the BBC headline may have seemed, in context it’s barely a story at all. Certainly not one to justify all the hand-wringing about climate change.
The BBC story contains a factual inaccuracy which goes to the heart of it. It also lacks context. To that extent, I think it’s fair to categorise it as disinformation.