Save Sheffield Trees

Exclusive! Interview with a threatened oak

One unexpected result from Sheffield’s appalling street tree massacre is that trees have been popping up all over my Twitter feed. Apparently it’s quite the fashion for them to have Twitter accounts these days.

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I always like getting to know people I interact with on social media and I don’t see why a tree should be any different. So today I am delighted to bring you an exclusive interview with the tree pictured in that bottom tweet there – Vernon Oak.

Unbelievably, Vernon’s been under threat of felling for months – and any day now we’ll find out whether he too will be destroyed, just like the thousands that have already disappeared from our streets as part of the council’s £2.2bn private finance deal with Amey PLC.

Vernon stands in Vernon Road in an area of Sheffield called Dore, just on the edge of the beautiful Peak District. Here’s a picture of him looking splendid in May.

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I’ve really enjoyed finding out more about Vernon – though of course this makes me even more upset about the possibility that he could be chopped down.

Over to Vernon!

JD: When did you start turning from an acorn into a tree?
VO: Mmm… that’s a tricky one. Obviously, I must have been an acorn to turn into an oak tree but when was that exactly? People seem to think it must have been about 130 years ago; it’s possible to work this out by measuring my trunk. I was probably planted by a jay or a squirrel. The acorn must have come from a mature oak tree because oak trees don’t start making acorns until they’re quite old. Even now the jays visit me for acorns so they’re probably still planting my successors somewhere in Dore today.

Wow! 130 years! When Queen Victoria was on the throne. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your lifetime?
There have been so many, many changes over my lifetime. The biggest change is how the fields in Dore have disappeared. You can still imagine them though, because we trees show you where the boundaries were. I and two other oaks, growing in gardens at the top of the road mark those long-gone fields. They built around me because people need houses and, probably because I was a beautiful asset to the new road, they left me to grow. I was young and I thrived: the road and I grew together.

The other big change has been in how people move about. When I was young I saw more people on the street, walking, talking, gardening and playing.  Nowadays, they drive past in cars. And because of that, it’s a lot less green around here in general: the front gardens that used to be green have turned grey because people need somewhere to put their cars. The air doesn’t seem as clear and fresh as it once was but do people know that that I help to clean it naturally? Probably not.

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Can you tell us about some of the animals, birds and insects that come to you for food and shelter?
There are so many, it would be impossible for me to list them all. Some of them you can’t even see. Let’s start with some birds that people would recognise: owls; tree-creepers; blue-tits; long-tailed tits; nuthatches; jays; woodpeckers; wood pigeons. The blackbirds love to sit at the very top and sing to the road. The tawny owl visits by night and this year some redwings passed by too. Then there are the insects: beetles; ladybirds; wasps; bees; caterpillars; spiders; moths. Bats. And fungi, mosses, lichen. Squirrels. Mice. And hundreds more.  All are welcome to feast at my table. It’s clever isn’t it, how a tree works? Every bit is useful and continues to be, right to the very end.

ladybirds

When did you first hear about the plans to fell thousands of Sheffield street trees?
In the past it’s seemed that nobody has taken much notice of me. Why should they? They were busy with their lives and I was just the street tree. Then a notice was stuck to my trunk saying that I was going to be felled because my roots were showing.

That’s when it all started to get busy. People nearby started to take photographs of me.  They put their arms about me. Some even danced. A film-maker filmed me. Dr George McGavin, who made a TV programme ‘The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor’, wrote to the council on my behalf. Politicians posed near me. Pictures of me went up in the windows of houses in the road saying ‘LET’S SAVE THE VERNON OAK’. Yellow ribbons, art and poetry appeared. Then people started meeting under my canopy to talk about what was happening around Sheffield. It was obvious that it wasn’t just me for the chop.

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How could anyone want to chop you down? What have you done wrong?
Apparently I’m damaging the surface of the pavement. I know I’ve made the kerb go a tiny bit uneven, but do I really deserve to lose my life over this? Take a look and see what you think.

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Don’t be fooled by the reference to a ‘replacement tree’. These are tiny, fragile things, not much more than a sapling and nothing like Vernon and his ilk. You can’t replace a tree.


How do you feel about these plans?
All living things must die; it’s the natural law of life. But everyone mourns the loss of those who’ve been cut down before their time. Something valuable and loved has been taken away and we feel their absence. I know what I do in my little corner of Sheffield. I know how I give shelter and sustenance to hundreds of living things. I give shelter from sun and rain. I clean the air. I mark the passing of the seasons. I am beautiful. I give joy. There are thousands of us ordinary street trees in Sheffield doing the same so it’s extraordinary that someone thinks it sensible to cut them down. I think you people will miss us when we’ve gone.

When do you expect to get news of your likely fate?
Any day. Someone knows it already, and has known it for a long time. They’re just not telling.

Is there anything  else you’d like to say?
Being a tree is great, I’ve loved it. I hope I will be able to go back to a quiet life soon but please, if I’m cut down, let my wood be made into something, furniture, art, benches, or even left to rot in gardens: that way I’d still be useful. Just don’t take me on a wagon through the streets of Sheffield to be burnt. It would be such a waste of a life. Show some respect.

Vernon: nobody I know wants you to be turned into furniture. You are beautiful and magnificent just as you are. Thank you very much for this interview and let’s hope with all our hearts that Sheffield council and Amey will see sense. 

And finally, here’s a picture of Vernon looking splendid in his autumn foliage. Who could bear to destroy this?

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Many thanks to Margaret Peart and Susan Unwin for help with the text and illustrations. For a useful summary of what’s happening to the trees in Sheffield, see the Sheffield Tree Action Group website here. You can follow Vernon Oak on Twitter @SAVEDORETREES.

 

We need to talk about Cathleen

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It’s an odd thing to do, deciding to call a tree ‘Cathleen’ and then pinning a name tag to its trunk. But we live in odd times, so out of joint with our surroundings that sometimes it takes strange tactics to get our attention.

‘Cathleen’ is a magnificent elm tree in my home city of Sheffield. Like all trees, Cathleen is a bearer of stories, not just her own but also those of the myriad tiny creatures who depend on her for life, and of the much larger human creatures living in the quiet suburb where Cathleen has stood for at least 150 years.

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Now, however, humans may be about to bring Cathleen’s story to a sudden end, felling her along with thousands of others in what has been called Sheffield’s ‘chainsaw massacre’, part of a massive, city-wide scheme to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements.

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There’s no denying that many of the improvements to our streets are both welcome and overdue, but it’s only now that some of us are waking up to the fact that the work is scheduled to involve destroying up to 18,000 trees, many of which are completely healthy. More than 3,500 have already gone.

It’s horribly appropriate that elm trees like Cathleen are traditionally associated with death and the underworld. Elms were often planted in churchyards and their strong, durable wood has been a popular choice for coffins.

There’s also a darker and more recent link between elm trees and death: Dutch elm disease, which since the 1960s has destroyed more than 25 million elms in the UK alone.

Roger Deakin, in his glorious paean to trees, Wildwood, describes Suffolk in the 1970s as ‘a landscape of many elms … cumulus clouds of their canopies on every horizon, elms in the hedges and at the corners of fields, pollard elms like milestones in the green lanes’. But now only a few hundred remain in the entire country and any that live for more than about twenty years are likely to succumb to the disease.

the hay wain from national gallery

Elm trees in John Constable’s quintessentially English painting of 1821, The Hay Wain, which hangs in the National Gallery.

So ‘Cathleen’, reckoned to be between 150 and 200 years old, is a rare tree indeed. It’s still unclear why she and a few dozen more survived the outbreak when others didn’t and it’s possible that her DNA may help scientists develop disease-resistant elms in the future.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such an extraordinary specimen would be a source of pride anywhere, and particularly in a place that is renowned for having more trees per inhabitant than any other in Europe and was recently rebranded as ‘the outdoor city’.

Yet, unbelievably, Cathleen is at risk of being felled as part of the ‘Streets Ahead’ project run jointly by Sheffield City Council and Amey plc, a company described on Wikipedia as an ‘infrastructure support provider’.

I won’t rehearse here the reasons why felling healthy trees is incredibly stupid, or highlight the appalling lack of transparency there is over the plans, or the council’s inexcusable failure to get the trees assessed by independent arboriculturists. It’s all powerfully summed up by Professor Ian Rotherham on his blog here.

I want to focus on two things that strike me as especially sad about this debacle. The first is that it underscores the extent to which we as humans have become divorced from the natural world, what has rightly been called ‘our common home’.

We are so numbed by our culture of mass production and easy consumption, for example, that Amey has been willing to gamble that it can quash protest by promising to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

It’s as if trees were washing machines or car tyres, easily replaced and with only minor variations between different models.

They are not. Under the plans, a magnificent mature lime, for example, could be replaced by a different species just seven years old. It’s like knocking down someone’s family home and promising them a new-build in a different area – they both have four walls and a roof so what’s the problem?

As Cathleen’s story demonstrates, even trees of the same species have their own, distinctive stories. This, presumably, is why campaigners are choosing to name threatened trees – as a winsome and clearly necessary way of drawing attention to their individuality.

Each tree also represents a unique habitat. Cathleen, for example, is home to a colony of rare White-letter hairstreak butterflies which almost became extinct when Dutch elm disease destroyed most of their preferred food sources.

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The White-letter hairstreak, named for the scribble on its wings. Picture credit

The story of Cathleen demonstrates how ecologically illiterate most of us are, how blind to the wonders that surround us in the nonhuman world. It beggars belief that we can even contemplate destroying a tree of this stature, rather than doing all we can to protect it.

The second thing, which makes me more angry than sad, is that this is not a ‘Sheffield’ kind of thing to do. My adopted city is a wonderful place with a long and proud history of radical thought, full of poets and artists, and cyclists and runners, with two brilliant universities, and acres and acres of green space, much of it donated to us by our philanthropic forbears. Thoughtless, selfish, stupid actions like unnecessarily destroying trees do not belong here.

A number of local groups in Sheffield are campaigning hard to change the Streets Ahead policy on tree felling. If you would like to find out more, or express your support, visit their joint website here. Even if you don’t live in Sheffield, you could sign the petitions and add your voice: trees are a national treasure, not just a local one.