Mark Wilson

‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.’

This quote is a favourite of Co Down tree nursery owner Mark Wilson. Which is fitting, for Mark is playing an important role in a scheme which epitomises its message.

Later this year, as part of a Northern Ireland Office initiative to mark the Centenary year, over 1,100 schools in Northern Ireland will be offered a locally grown tree to plant. The trees will be supplied by Mark’s company, Craigmore Trees. And while there is never a bad time to plant a tree, the idea seems especially appropriate in a year when the UK Government will be hosting COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, in Glasgow.

For Mark, nothing could be more important, nor more urgent, than planting trees, whose attributes have become ever more important thanks to global warming. Known as the lungs of the earth, trees, as Mark points out, are crucial to our lives.

Aside from the beauty they bring to the landscape, the carbon dioxide stored by trees helps slow the rate of global warming. Their leaves absorb pollutants, they improve air quality, they shelter and feed our wildlife and reduce flooding.

Mark’s interest in trees saw him study horticulture in Greenmount College and Scotland for five years, followed by a placement and then a fulltime position at Hillier Nurseries in the south of England, the biggest supplier of semi-mature trees in the UK. After seven years with Hillier, he started his own specialist tree nursery, Craigmore Trees, just outside Portadown.

Most of the trees grown at Craigmore Trees are grafted, using the budding method. That is where a root system from a wild or local tree is grown for about a year before a bud from another tree is fused onto it. The whole process takes around three years before it is ready for planting.

Mark’s own favourite trees include Scots pine, a survivor of the great forests that covered Ireland for thousands of years, and the rowan, also known as the ‘witches’ tree’. “There is great interest in the rowan today,” he says. “Flowering in the spring and bearing berries in the autumn, it has lovely colours and is important in supporting wildlife. The silver birch is also great for wildlife and has a nice silver stem in winter. And for wet landscapes, the alder is perfect.”

As someone who has been planting trees for most of his life, the NIO initiative is something Mark is thrilled to support.

‘I’ve always had a big interest in the environment,” he says. “It’s so important we protect it. Northern Ireland is now one of the least forested areas in Europe and we need more trees to be planted. In fact, we need to be constantly planting, we can’t stop!”

Mark takes great encouragement from the interest young people are showing in the environment. “People today support sustainability,” he says. “They want to know where their food comes from. We have a vegetable garden at home and I love to see my children pulling out carrots and eating them. We are also very careful at the nursery how we treat the land. For instance, I don’t like blasting chemicals over the fields, we don’t know how long they will remain in the ground.”

Craigmore Trees has recently expanded their tree production facility, building a new yard, and so are able to take on the considerable task of supplying each of Northern Ireland’s schools with a locally grown tree. They will deliver the trees in pots, which Mark says will allow them to grow straight away. “In the pot they won’t be held back,” he says, ‘whereas if you plant a root tree in a field it takes two or three years to get over the shock of being transplanted.”

While every tree that is planted by the schools (Mark will recommend trees that suit the local environment), is important, so is the need to enthuse and educate children about their value.

“There is nothing I love to see more than a child planting a tree,” Mark says. “It’s where our future lies. It’s a fantastic thing to think of school children taking pride and ownership of that tree and seeing it grow in years to come. Even in 20 years or so a rowan or a birch can reach thirty feet high, in 60 years it could be fully grown.”

The planting of trees has come to represent faith in our future. The NIO initiative will begin the process of handing over the baton for preserving our trees to our children. What better way to commemorate the hosting of COP26.