How Extinction Rebellion is saving British oaks

“For me, planting a tree can be a radical act of love. We are doing something positive.” Jack Francklin talks to James Murray-White, founder of the Extinction Rebellion-affiliated Save the Oaks campaign, on why he founded the movement. 

Royal oak tree
Jack Francklin

The plumes of smoke which bellowed out of the giant redwood trees in California in 2019 inspired the rescue of thousands of British oak saplings. 

James Murray-White was speaking to a friend who was in the US when they showed him the chaotic and devastating scenes through the lens of their phone camera.  

Green Party member Mr Murray-White co-founded Extinction Rebellion Rewilding in August of that year and then the affiliated Save The Oaks project in April 2020, which was set up after it emerged that 750,000 oak saplings would be destroyed due to the Government's unfulfilled promise to plant the trees. 

A crowdfunding page as part of the project has raised over £12,000 and has enabled the organisers to place an order of 30,000 oak saplings from a tree nursery, with another 20,000 lined up to be bought and distributed to members of the public willing and able to plant them in the coming months if the coronavirus restrictions allow. 

He said: “I feel a great weight of responsibility to get these trees distributed out. Every time there is a bit of news about it, I have felt extremely humbled. 

“I am a film producer and my income has completely dried up. Some people have donated £1 and others £1,000. It is amazing people chip in at a very hard time for us all financially. 

“We are asking people to plant them with a sense of ceremony. People could plant them for friends, family, for everyone who has died from Covid-19 or been through a terrible time. 

“It’s just great to be of service to these trees.” 

He explained that he and Rob, a friend and co-founder of the project, had been dealing with Maelor Forest Nurseries near Wrexham, which had grown 500,000 saplings and were selling them to Extinction Rebellion and the project for 22p each. 

The number of trees requested and distributed to individuals or organisations has ranged from five to 3,000.  

The West Yorkshire-based Calderdale Youth Climate Strikers, for example, received 1,000 saplings which will be planted at Hebden and Blackshaw Head. 

Young people planting oaks

They are an active group of young people aged between 8-14 that include Anna Vasey (14), Isla Lay (14) holding Meg the dog, Evie Guha (11), Leela Guha (14) and Martha Kidd (13), as seen in the photo from left to right. 

Mr Murray White, who has lived in Mongolia, Ireland and Bristol in the last 20 years, said: “It is the very nature of us humans that we are tribal, passionate and beautiful and yet there is something quite antagonistic too.  

“Hence my thing with trees. For me, planting a tree can be a radical act of love. I have no problem planting one on my own or in a group but ideally if we focus our entire self just for that two minutes of digging that hole and getting that tree in, it is a radical act of love. We are doing something positive. 

“If we come back every month to make sure it has water and hasn’t been eaten by deer that is something we can do.  

“I care about growing stuff. I’ve always grown vegetables, that is where my motivation comes for plants and trying to nurture them.  

“These beautiful things are all around us, I’ve met 800-year-old oaks, it would be good to get other trees planted too.” 

Mr Murray White, 52, explained that he set up Extinction Rebellion Rewilding after he witnessed from afar the ecocides of the Australian and Californian wildfires and thought that maybe he could do something to counteract these tragedies. 

He said: “We decided we needed to seed the context of rewilding into Extinction Rebellion (XR). We thought it had been missing a spiritual and wild core that not only incorporates the hard science of carbon mitigation of trees but also the need that us humans need rewilding too. 

“Some people say tree planting fits into rewilding and some people say it doesn’t. The whole point of XR Rewilding was marrying land rewilding and human rewilding. 

“XR rewilding is trying to promote that sense of rewilding, whatever the sense. Even the word rewilding is becoming a bit outdated and this new word, for-wilding, is a lovely word which is coming up a bit.”