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“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

By Tim Fray

I don’t know about you, but at the moment the Coronavirus lock down is causing me to crave the countryside. I am grateful for the walks I can do and with each walk comes a wider perspective on why the countryside looks like it does. For the large part, farmers do the majority of the work in maintaining our pleasant green land, but along with them there are an army of charities, such as the Woodland Trust, dedicated to saving our heritage. However one man, Graham Tuley, has perhaps single-handedly changed what the countryside and the landscape around us looks like more than any of us think. And most of us have never heard of him.

Graham Tuley is the man responsible for devising the “Tuley Tube”. These are the plastic tubes you see up and down the countryside embedded around small newly planted saplings. To most they are an unsightly blot, but without them the saplings would not survive and the trees we see around us today would not be there. The environmental impact of manufacturing and spreading plastics in this manner is likely far diminished by the benefit they bestow. In this day and age perhaps it is arguably the best use of plastics, ever.

In fact the Woodland Trust’s official position on this is “Whilst single-use plastics and their impact on the environment are a big concern, tree guards are often necessary. However as they are plastic we (along with other organisations) are actively trying to find environmentally-better replacements. The Woodland Trust aims to minimise use of plastics and look to recycle/reuse where possible. We are currently investigating alternatives to plastic tree protection but the reality is that these are still under development. If we don’t offer protection there’s a danger that many young trees will be damaged and never reach maturity.”

Tuley made the invention whilst working at the Forestry Commission’s Alice Holt Research Station near Farnham. A research proposal was in place to solve the problem of pests in newly-planted woodland and Graham took it upon himself to follow it up. Within a few years Tuley had stunned the forestry industry and given our broadleaf heritage an enormous leg-up.

He had invented the Tuley Tube, a plastic sheath that is wrapped around the seedling when it is planted. The tubes generated a local greenhouse effect and improved early growth of the saplings, whilst also preventing bites from pests such as deer and rabbits. The tubes also provided a guard to sprays which meant that sprays could be applied without harming the trees within.

Image credited to Jill Jennings/Woodland Trust showing newly planted trees surrounded by Tuley Tubes.

But Graham Tuley never got to see a penny from the millions of Tuley Tubes installed around the country. He was working for a public body who didn’t follow up on his invention. Instead Graham Tuley published his work in “Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research”, in October, 1985. The rather humble title of his work was “The growth of young oak trees in shelters”, but then again it is the simplest ideas that are the best. Of course, his publication meant a patent was then out of the question, and in that fleeting moment any chance of any royalties was lost forever. Perhaps this is one of the first examples of what is now termed “Open Innovation”. Everyone can use the tree shelters now, and the Earth is better off for it I think. And companies can continue to churn out the tubes in various different shapes and sizes in the tens of millions a year. To think that the smallest of royalties alone would have made Tuley a fortune!

The old Greek proverb which is the title of this article remains as poignant today as it ever was.

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