IN ancient times, large areas of Wiltshire were covered in trees.

The former Royal Forests of Braydon, Chippenham, Melksham, and Selwood evolved from a great belt of woodland known to the Saxons of the ninth century as Sealwuddu – according to A History of the County of Wiltshire – and in the 21st century Wiltshire Wildlife Trust is working to expand and link together scattered areas of land once part of the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Braydon.

These days, that ancient forest is not much in evidence and it turns out Swindon has even less tree canopy cover than many other towns and cities in England.A survey by Treeconomics has calculated that Swindon’s canopy cover is only eight per cent – which compares to 18.6 per cent in Bristol, and 20 per cent in Bath. Literally leafy Tonbridge has 28.5 per cent canopy cover.

Tree Canopy Cover is the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above. It provides many benefits to communities, by improving water quality, saving energy, lowering temperatures, reducing air pollution, enhancing property values, providing wildlife habitat and, in the eyes of many, trees make the place more beautiful.

Altogether, 283 towns and cities in England were surveyed – and only 40 of those had less than ten per cent of canopy cover. That puts Swindon in the bottom 14 per cent. Kenton Rogers, of Treeconomics, a social enterprise based at the University of Exeter, said the survey was carried out using i-Tree Canopy. This uses Google Earth’s aerial photography to calculate the level of canopy cover in an area. This does not necessarily reflect the actual number of trees, as one large and mature tree may have considerably more canopy than half a dozen saplings. Coming from a forestry background himself, Kenton explained that Treeconomics was set up to highlight the value and importance of trees.

“They offer many benefits and should be managed as assets,” he explained. “We collaborate with other organisations such as local authorities, private business and community groups.”

Neil Pullen, reserve manager for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, said Swindon’s tree situation might not be as poor as the survey suggested.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about statistics such as this. I don’t know exactly what area the survey covered and on chalk down lands you would not expect to have much tree cover. In terms of tree, they are certainly brilliant things. The ameliorate noise and pollution in towns, and we should encourage more and more into the centre of towns. They help tackle climate change, and provide cool, shaded places.

Swindon Borough Council has been getting on top of this, with the Great Western Community Forest. In the last twenty or thirty years, the borough has planted a lot of trees, so we have many coming through.”

Mr Pullen also highlighted Shaw Forest Park, a 40-hectare community woodland about three kilometres north-west of the centre of Swindon, where more trees have been planted.

“Sometimes the focus is only on trees, and Swindon is really brilliant for having lots of other green spaces,” he said. Green parks and meadows such as the Lawns also needed to be taken into account.

A spokesman from Swindon Borough Council said they were surprised by the canopy cover statistics as Swindon had a very high percentage of open space and low residential density, compared to many other towns and cities. The density of people per hectare in Swindon is 23.8, compared to 39.1 in Bristol, for example.

“The low canopy cover may in part be attributable to the fact that a lot of Swindon’s development is relatively new and it takes a long time for trees to mature,” he said. “We do though have significant planting programmes in place such as the Great Western Community Forest with a number of projects being financed through Section 106 developments. We are confident that with these programmes in place, Swindon’s tree canopy figures will increase in the years to come.”

Swindon is at the centre of the Great Western Community Forest (GWCF), a programme to increase woodland and tree cover around the edges of the town and nearby communities over the past 24 years. In its early days, GWCF trees were planted in school grounds across the town, along road verges and in urban open spaces. The most recent example of woodland creation is at Common Farm, on the edge of Wroughton, with 15,000 trees being planted.

Talis Kimberley-Fairbourn, former Swindon Green Party candidate and an independent parish councillor for Wroughton, said it was sad to hear that Swindon’s tree cover was relatively scant.

“We have a lot of green spaces in Swindon, including great swathes of verge bordering some of our busiest roads,” she said. “It’s clear that tree cover is good for us. It’s good for air quality, to begin with; given that 40,000 people die in the UK every year from illnesses relating to poor air quality - ie pollution, largely from traffic - that should be at the top of every town planner’s list.

“They’re good for peoples’ mental health as well, and they can even help feed us if fruit and nut trees are part of the landscape.”

The GWCF has been meeting with the Woodland Trust and Forest of Avon Trust (based in Bristol), and they are in the very early stages of putting together a joint bid for funding. They would like to develop a longer term project to build political and practical community support for trees, lots more tree planting and greater public awareness of the importance of trees.

This is an approach Talis echoed: “House builders can plant more trees around new developments - they ought to leave more green shared space for people in any case. Businesses, schools, faith groups, local charities and other organisations can join this, looking at adding even just one or two trees. A borough-wide challenge and a website to add ‘your tree’ could see numbers creep up steadily and with building enthusiasm as they do for major fundraising campaigns.”

She said groups and businesses without space could perhaps help fund trees for those who have space but no funds.

“Native varieties, a good proportion of nut and fruit trees, and a borough-wide challenge to edge up the total of new trees planted - wouldn’t that be worth doing?

“Tree planting sessions all over the place with neighbours sharing tools and getting muddy together while securing a cleaner and healthier future for the whole town. Count me in, I’ve got wellies and a spade.”