Jonathan Wild: A million tree promise

Alumni news

Jonathan Wild (Hon LLD 2011), the former Chair and Managing Director of Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate, is dedicated to his mission to protect the planet.

“If you plant one tree, I’ll find a way to plant the other 999,999,” Jonathan told his children. 

They’d just watched an upsetting Blue Peter feature about the destruction of the rainforest. Over 30 years and five million trees later, the former Chair and Managing Director of Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate is just as dedicated to his mission to protect the planet. 

More so than ever, in fact. Since his retirement in 2011, Jonathan founded and became a trustee of the United Bank of Carbon (UBoC), a registered environmental charity protecting, planting and restoring trees. It allows him to work with Leeds researchers – most of UBoC’s affiliated scientists are based at the University – to make a difference. “It was an emotional response 30 years ago, but I wasn’t digging into the detail. Now I have time to work with the experts and really change things.”

Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate is a brand synonymous with conservation efforts, an image born from Jonathan’s promise. As the owner of the family business, Jonathan launched the Trees for Life initiative on packs of Yorkshire Tea and Taylors coffee; buyers collected tokens and the business underwrote the cost of planting. “Back then it wasn’t a hot topic,” Jonathan says. “But I decided that if we just keep going, people would start to understand the importance of tree planting.”  

He was right to persist. The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which emphasised the need for immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions, highlighted how the natural system helps to remove a good fraction of our emissions each year – with trees being the biggest contributor.  

As Professor Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate Change at Leeds, and a trustee at UBoC stated: “Early action to limit emissions will play a key role in ensuring that net-zero targets work, but this is in large part thanks to our trees: we need to look after them more than ever.”

There is most potential in doing things together. Partnerships are hard, but I think that’s what the future requires.

Jonathan Wild (Hon LLD 2011)

Jonathan planted the millionth tree opposite the first in Harrogate, ten years after his initial pledge. The legacy remains, as the business continues to plant and protect trees worldwide today – they twice received the Queen's Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development, and Jonathan’s business and conservation accomplishments were recognised with an honorary degree from Leeds in 2011.  

On retirement, Jonathan had more time to give, but he felt he was missing scientific input. It was pure chance that he met the ideal candidate to help. “I met Piers Forster on a tennis court, and we got talking. I knew Leeds were doing great work in climate action, and he was a big part of that.” 

UBoC followed, where a shared passion for trees, the scientists’ expertise, and Jonathan’s business instinct proved a powerful combination. “In the business world I was used to bringing people together,” Jonathan says. “But I found the academics were working in silos, and it confused me – trees are a universal subject.” 

One of UBoC’s key activities is to get people talking – be it conversations between researchers, or with external organisations. The Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forest (LEAF) centre was created, bringing together forest-related research activities across campus, and the Priestley Centre followed. “Every subject informs climate change. We had the English department join us, for example, because the way you talk about the environment has an impact. 

“There is most potential in doing things together. Partnerships are hard, but I think that’s what the future requires.” 

UBoC also provide seed funding for projects, support PhD students and research activity, and use the findings to inform their own projects in forests and woodlands.  

Jonathan describes the process as a learning curve. Although initially there was a global outlook to the work – and there still is, with PhD research in Africa and South-East Asia – local projects have started to take centre stage. “We want to have impact and fill gaps in knowledge. That’s the most important thing. The Yorkshire Dales National Park is one of the least forested parks in the UK, for example, so we have work to do here.” 

That work includes the Wild Ingleborough project. By bringing together various organisations, the team are restoring peatlands and native woodland around Ingleborough which will remove and store carbon. The lessons learned will inform the design of future policy to sustain rural communities – and volunteers are needed for a wide variety of tasks, ranging from tree planting to butterfly surveying. 

Already, similar projects such as Restoring Hardknott Forest are providing a model for regeneration, increasing wildlife diversity and natural woodland. “There is always more to do,” Jonathan adds. “In education in particular, I’d like us to build momentum. But I’m proud of the leadership we’ve shown to bring groups together, and that’s down to the people in UBoC driving for change. Our team are so passionate about what they do.  

“If they have that passion, they’re the ones making a difference, and I back them.” 

Further information

You can make a difference too by volunteering for the Wild Ingleborough project this autumn and winter.

Read the latest blog post from environmental scientist Dr Cat Scott, a UBoC team member from the LEAF Centre, as she examines the challenges being faced by forests around the world and what we need to do in the UK to maximise the benefits of new woodland creation. 

For further details, email Ed Newbould, Communications Officer, University of Leeds at