A pandemic first ignited Jon Stokes’ love of trees. During the late 1960s, a devastating outbreak of Dutch elm disease killed millions of trees across the UK, and as part of its response, the government launched a countrywide scheme snappily entitled ‘Plant a Tree in ’73’. Jon’s father got involved, organising 50 trees to be planted for the 50 houses in their street. Jon was seven at the time, and already deeply absorbed in natural history, but as he says, “That was what really opened my eyes to trees.”
He grew up on a big, new housing estate at Portchester near Portsmouth, on the side of Portsdown Hill, where he still lives today. “My parents’ house came with half an acre of chalk downland that had simply been fenced in to make the garden,” says Jon. “I managed to persuade them to keep it that way, and for the past 50 years they’ve only mown the grass two times a year – it’s full of wildflowers and orchids.” His early passion for natural history led him on to a degree in botany and zoology, followed by an MA in conservation; he wrote his masters thesis on the blue-butterfly colonies in his parents’ garden. Despite their support for his interests Jon’s parents were less than overjoyed by their son’s eventual career choice. “If anything my parents tried to talk me out of going into conservation,” he says. “They couldn’t see how I could make a living from it. It’s still a challenge for young people today: there isn’t an obvious career path to follow.”
A research project at University College London that was investigating how charities managed the woodlands under their care led Jon to a job at an environmental charity, and a project supporting an initiative that encouraged local people to become ‘tree wardens’, which had been launched in the early 1980s in Leicestershire and East Sussex. The scheme’s aim was to create a network of volunteers who could, among other things, keep an eye on the wellbeing of local trees and encourage increased tree planting in their area. When that charity was wound up in 1989, Jon joined the Tree Council, keeping in mind the idea of the tree wardens and launching the scheme nationally the following year.
Today, in the 30th anniversary of the scheme, there are around 6,000 volunteers around the country. “I’m humbled by the fact that I’ve been part of this journey with so many inspirational volunteer tree wardens over the course of the years,” says Jon. “Their skills, knowledge, enthusiasm and passion surpasses anything I could have dreamed of. They have planted, protected and celebrated millions of trees. And I started that.”
After three decades in the job, latterly as the Tree Council’s director of trees, science and research, Jon’s enthusiasm remains undimmed – but then as he says: “The past 30 years have been fun, but the next 30 years offer huge challenges, and I’ve never felt more passionate to make a difference, because so much is at stake. We need to have wholesale societal rethink about how we use energy and reduce our carbon output. Trees can play an important part in helping to absorb some of our carbon output, but this is more than just planting trees. Trees will grow naturally if we let them – so it’s about the way we manage the countryside and giving trees the opportunity to grow.”
With climate change and globalisation enabling the rapid spread of new diseases, this is a worrying time for arboriculturists, and Jon cautions anyone who’s planning to plant new trees to think carefully before they start. “We have to be especially careful about what we plant and particularly where it has come from,” he says. “Moving plants and their associated diseases around the world is simply not sensible. Ideally, grow trees from seed you have collected locally – it is after all what seeds are for. Grow them in pots and plant them out when they are old enough to cope. If you buy trees, check that the nursery you use has grown them in the UK and that they have never been abroad. It’s not difficult – but it is vital.”
Big challenges require a big-picture response, but Jon has never lost his love of particular trees. “I think of them as individuals, each with its own character and life history,” he says. “I guess that’s why I love free-standing trees more than woods.” He’s also particularly proud of having found one of the oldest trees in Europe, the Llangernyw Yew in Conwy, North Wales. “On my first visit it had an oil tank in the middle of it,” Jon recalls, “but we managed to get that removed, and today it’s looking fantastic; it’s probably my favourite tree.”
For Jon, trees touch everything we do. “Trees produce so many things we use and eat daily, without thinking that they come from trees,” he points out. “A world without trees would be a world without chocolate. And that’s not a world I want to live in.”