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Stop the chop: looking after our mature urban trees

  • by JW

More than 100 mature trees have been cut down in the centre of Plymouth in a move campaigners said was reminiscent of the needless felling of thousands of trees in Sheffield – known as the ‘chainsaw massacre’.

“The value you have in large mature trees is almost incalculable, and so you should avoid losing that at any cost – regardless of how many trees you think about planting.” [Prof Mat Disney in Ecological Solutions and Evidence]


“Large trees are incredibly important”

It’s clear we need our trees – especially the larger ones: Mature trees are biocarbon heavyweights | Climate Solutions 

And especially in our towns and cities: 5 reasons why cities need a healthy tree cover | World Economic Forum

But it’s a struggle to keep them and to plant them: ‘We need trees’: green vision struggles to take root in Europe’s cities | Cities | The Guardian

And it’s clear that we need to be keeping them more than we need to be planting them. But that’s proving a real struggle, as reported in the Conversation:

Sadly, the UK has an unhealthy street tree-felling habit. Up to 60 trees per day are chopped down to make way for buildings and infrastructure, such as roads or sewers. Felling rates could also rise as development accelerates and governments relax planning rules to aid post-pandemic economic recovery. It is larger street trees which are most often the victims of development because they are a challenge for city planners...

Councils are wary of street tree issues now, and often try to manage PR by claiming felling is mitigated by planting several smaller trees to replace each large one removed. When local authorities like Swansea City Council claim development will result in “more trees” they are of course right, but it is not the full story. Just as any child would understand they were being ripped off if given a 2p piece and a 1p piece to replace a pound coin, removing large species trees and replacing them with small ones results in a net loss of ecosystem services.

Joe Coles, the urban tree campaigner responsible for conservation charity Woodland Trust’s work in Sheffield, describes this as a form of greenwashing. “If we value green infrastructure to the same level as grey then large street trees will become far too valuable to lose”, he tells me. “Until there is acceptance that large trees, taking decades to reach maturity, have significant value – a fact based on scientific evidence – we will continue to see spurious but convenient assertions that higher numbers of small replacement trees are adequate compensation to facilitate development.”

Mature street trees do everything from having a positive effect on infant birth weight in lower socio-economic demographics, to increasing resilience to major life events among people who live within sight of them. Consumers spend more on streets that are lined with large trees.

Why keeping one mature street tree is far better for humans and nature than planting lots of new ones

And now we learn that the value of older trees is much more significant than we thought – as a study from December made very clear:

For the near future though, Prof Mat Disney says this research [Ecological Solutions and Evidence] has serious implications for our understanding of the benefits of protecting trees, in terms of climate change. And the complex structure of mature trees in particular means they play a role that is very difficult to replace by simply planting more trees. “The value you have in large mature trees is almost incalculable, and so you should avoid losing that at any cost – regardless of how many trees you think about planting. Those large trees are incredibly important.” UK’s old trees critical to climate change fight – BBC News and Carbon and trees – Climate Awareness Partnership Sidmouth

Sidmouth Arboretum: protecting the town’s treescape

Sidmouth Town Council has had a tree warden for some time: Diana is Sid Valley’s first tree warden | Sidmouth Herald

It takes the role very seriously: 

A parish tree warden is there to keep an eye on protected trees, to raise awareness of the value of trees in the local community and to encourage people to look after trees carefully… Tree wardens are encouraged to maintain close links with the District Council Tree Officers who can provide information about tree management, law and protection and data about which trees are protected within an individual parish. PL._AGENDA_08.08.18.pdf

And it works very closely with the Sidmouth Arboretum, which it helped to set up:

In 2010, members of the Chamber of Commerce approached the Town Council with the idea that the town’s treescape should be protected and promoted as an asset to the tourist industry. The Town Council resolved to back a community group that was set up with a remit to engage public interest in the trees and shrubs of the whole valley. Home – Sidmouth Arboretum

The Arboretum’s website is full of news about trees of relevance to the Valley: (20+) Sidmouth Arboretum | Facebook

Including this post from December:

Incredibly sad to see another of the town’s large Monterey Pines gone. The one that graced Sidford High Street just along from from Waitrose has been taken down. A complicated tale, if the details are correct then this is a real shame and the tree did not have to be removed. Mature trees make our valley a better place for all of us, we need to look after them. Our project of planting 14,000 whips will not make a noticeable difference for several years and cannot replace lost mature trees effectively.
UPDATE, apparently highways wrote to the owners and warned them about roots causing a trip hazard. The owners are sad to lose the tree but felt they had no alternative. I thought the Sheffield nonsense had put a stop to this. 
(20+) Facebook

From Sheffield nonsense…

Last week, the Arboretum’s social media pages reported on the latest on the ‘Sheffield nonsense’:

“Deluded” councillors in Sheffield behaved dishonestly and destroyed public trust by mishandling a dispute over the unnecessarily felling of thousands of healthy trees in the city, an independent inquiry has found. Sheffield city council twice misled the high court during the fierce row, during which elderly residents were arrested when trying to protect trees from the chainsaws. During one particularly contentious episode in autumn 2016, council contractors began work at 4.45am, dragging residents out of bed to move their cars before protesters arrived, scenes compared by Nick Clegg, the former Sheffield Hallam MP, to “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia”. Sheffield city council behaved dishonestly in street trees row, inquiry finds | Sheffield | The Guardian

… to felling 100 mature trees in Plymouth under the cover of darkness

Earlier today, the Arboretum was reporting on the latest from Plymouth:

More than 100 mature trees have been cut down in the centre of Plymouth in a move campaigners said was reminiscent of the needless felling of thousands of trees in Sheffield. Despite widespread opposition from local people, the Conservative council in the Devon city cordoned off the trees with metal fencing, sent in security guards and in the cover of darkness on Tuesday night, destroyed more than 100 with chainsaws over a few hours. The move came within days of a highly critical report on the needless destruction of trees by Sheffield city council – known as the “chainsaw massacre”. An inquiry report found the council was guilty of “a serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership”. Some 16,000 people in Plymouth had signed a petition to save the mature trees, which line a walkway from the sea to the city and the council agreed in February to community engagement. But within hours of that ending, on Tuesday night the chainsaws moved in and within hours more than 100 trees were felled. At 1am the local campaign to save the trees, Straw, obtained an injunction that halted the felling and saved 15 trees. They vow to continue their fight. ‘A disgrace’: more than 100 trees cut down in Plymouth despite local opposition | Trees and forests | The Guardian

Back in January, the row over the plans to fell these mature trees in Plymouth erupted into the national press: Cities felling mature trees: from Sheffield to Plymouth – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Last night’s felling of most of the trees has clearly shocked the city, as the reports from Plymouth Live show: Plymouth reacts as ‘monsters in the night’ fell trees on Armada Way – Plymouth Live and Plymouth mourns Armada Way trees as council admits people didn’t want £12.7m upgrade – Plymouth Live and Daylight in Plymouth reveals full scale of tree-felling in Armada Way – Plymouth Live

The regional and national press also captured the reaction to the felling: Plymouth angered as ‘monsters in the night’ chop down more than 100 trees on Armada Way | ITV News West Country and Early-hours injunction halts ‘despicable’ tree felling in Plymouth – BBC News and Plymouth City Council sparks fury as workers begin chopping 129 trees ‘under cover of darkness’ | Daily Mail Online and ‘A disgrace’: more than 100 trees cut down in Plymouth despite local opposition | Trees and forests | The Guardian

The group campaigning to save the trees has more on its social media:

(20+) STRAW – Save the TRees Armada Way | Facebook

(18) STRAWPlymouth (@STRAWPlymouth) / Twitter

With this tweeted from midnight last night as the felling began:

(18) STRAWPlymouth on Twitter: “They call it progress, we call it destruction #StopTheChop” / Twitter

With further tweets from BBC Devon reporter Ewan Murrie:

(18) Ewan Murrie on Twitter: “Armada Way looking very different this morning. Join us on @BBCDevon for live reporting from 7am.” / Twitter

STRAW are looking for funding as of tonight for a judicial review: A Case against Plymouth City Council to Save our Trees!