Cutting down a tree is worse than fox hunting

Cutting down a tree is worse than fox hunting.  Response to Opinion article in Saturday’s Times.


The Editor
The Times
3 Thomas More Square
London, E98 1TY


There are many trees worth going to prison for. But not all trees fall into this category.  Ancient woodlands, though, are in a class that justifies a fair amount of insurrection.  They are a vitally precious resource that is irreplaceable according to Lord Clark, a former chairman of the Forestry Commission*.  Such woods epitomise the value of trees in linking us to the past and the future.

At Combe Haven Valley the danger from the proposed link road seems to be to individual old trees rather than to ancient woodlands.  I agree that cutting down a veteran oak, which could be centuries old, is worse than killing a fox or other animal.  It’s more akin to blowing up a whole hillside as every tree is more than just one organism, it’s a whole world of habitats; root and soil micro-organisms and fungi, lichen and flora growing on trunk, shoot and leaf and associated insects browsing within this micro-landscape and these being preyed on by bigger insects and other animals.  Remove the tree and you remove all this.

There is a general groundswell in support of trees by ordinary people and I think they love trees because they change.  Officialdom hates trees for the same reason.  People need trees to weave in and out of their complicated lives whereas official approaches to life tend to be rigid and rules-based.  A tree is more difficult to manage than a lamp post.  But it is so much more than a lamp post that it’s crazy to favour that inert, single-purpose thing over a beautiful (or even not so beautiful) giant living plant.

But not all councils are anti-tree.  Pollarding is a long-established management tool for allowing trees, people and structures to occupy the same, limited space.  The problem is that such management needs to be done by knowledgeable contractors according to a wise plan and tree strategy.  Often plans just follow what went before and not enough thought is put into what an area wants or needs from its existing trees.  This lack of vision is hamstringing efforts to manage the tree stock in urban areas.

It is wrong to lump all urban tree contractors into the ‘municipal butcher’ box and to suggest that they are on a par with child amputators.  Tree surgery has a long and professional history in the UK.  Don’t blame the messenger unless he’s an incompetent messenger, blame those who write the messages.

The increasing intensity of life in cities and towns makes the retention of trees vital, but it also affects how people feel about their surroundings.  There is a growing idea that the outside world should be as well ordered as our homes.  But trees won’t play along with this (see argument above about why officialdom hates trees).  They are wild beings, not tame garden features.  They move, they grow and they shed all sorts of things; bits of tree and bits of animals that sit in the trees.  We should not strive to make our gardens, streets and parks too ‘tidy’.  Tidy-mindedness is a plague on our environment.  I weep at the loss of the school tree that was too messy for the head teacher.  I bet it wasn’t too messy for the children.  And it is crucial that the next generation of urban dweller grows up with an understanding of what trees are like.  So there should be more trees in school grounds, not less.

If people see the obvious benefits of development they are likely to agree or shrug.  It’s unlikely they will man the barricades.  When ordinary folks come out like they have in Combe Haven Valley it shows just how rigid, rules-based and lacking in vision a local authority can be.

* Endorsement of Oliver Rackham’s book Ancient Woodlands, Castlepoint Press, 2003.

Article written by Steve Cox on January 14, 2013