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Championing the Champions: Identifying Special Trees, and What Makes them Special


by Mark Chester - Cedarwood Tree Care


Many of us can think of special trees scattered across the British Isles, and on occasion, a local tree can become a cause celebre’ , usually in connection with a community coming together, perhaps to save it from development. For the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, the Tree Council identified 100 special trees to champion and celebrate. I recently visited one of these, and wonder whether we truly champion our champion trees, and what obstacles our trees face.

Trees such as the Royal Oak at Sherwood Forest are celebrated, and rightly so. However, I do wonder whether we overlook the treasures around us, until they are threatened, and the basis on which we identify what the champions are. How much do we value the trees around us? So often, when I survey them for potential development sites, trees are seen as a hindrance, a problem, rather than the asset they often can be. When I worked in local government, I routinely received requests to remove trees because of loss of light, leaf fall and interference with satellite TV reception. The phrase quoted so often of ‘don’t get me wrong, I like trees. Just not this one’. The reality is that it is often ‘this one’ which is making an important contribution to the local setting. One developer that I worked with was quite willing to pay for some woodland to be planted somewhere else if he could fell the tree limiting his development. Truth is that his tree,
located within a populated area, was contributing more that the woodland would. We need trees where people are!

Recent research based on trials in Manchester found that having Birch trees in the front gardens of properties fronting a busy road reduced the amount of particulates in the air which were reaching the homes. The particulates, which can cause respiratory problems such as asthma, were intercepted by the trees, and this improved the health of the local residents, to the extent that the researchers suggested having trees in streets should be encouraged for health benefits. I suggest that many of our trees are local champions, whose contributions should be celebrated.

Not only do trees enhance air quality, evidence suggests that they improve our health. Research as far back as the mid-1980s found that hospital patients who could see trees and shrubs whilst recovering made a swifter return to good health than those without these views. More recently, research shows that a work place with trees and other foliage encourages greater productivity and quality of life.

Trees planted as part of landscape restoration work have been linked with regeneration in places such as Liverpool, where resources were focused on the poorest part of the city, and led to economic growth, as well as that from the trees. They enhance our quality of life, including mental health. They can significantly reduce the temperature within urban settings, known as the Urban Heat Island. This happens through the cooling effects of evapotranspiration, and can help to reduce deaths from heat exhaustion which can happen during heat waves.

May I suggest that many of our trees are unsung heroes, which suffer through a lack of appreciation. How often do we see proposals for retail outlets with attractive illustrations of tree-lined avenues, yet when reality dawns, the trees suffer neglect and are pruned so regularly that they become stunted and fail to achieve their potential. Dr. Kathleen Woolf, a scientist specialising in social science in the US, explored perceptions relating to trees in retail outlets, which she shared at the Trees, People and the Built Environment conference at Birmingham University in 2014. She found that the retailers were reluctant to have trees and shrubs around their stores, anxious that this could detract from the shopping experience. However, when shoppers were asked which environment they preferred, it was the outlets with trees and shrubs that appealed the most. There can be such a difference between perception and reality.

Why are trees under threat? I recognise a range of causes. They take space, and, especially in the UK, land is valuable. Forward planning is needed to successfully retain trees on a potential development site, but much is possible. I find it disappointing when dealing with some applicants who only see retained trees as a lost opportunity to generate revenue, rather than a platform to deliver a quality scheme.

Care is needed, of course, to ensure trees are suitable for their setting. For this, professional guidance is valuable. I recall a scheme where an architect proposed
an avenue of Alders for a major thoroughfare within a large development, with apartments fronting the road. The architect was seemingly unaware that the trees, whilst tolerant of urban pollution and quick to become established, can also become tall and cast shade. Alders are great where there is space, but not ideal next to apartments, where lack of light will become an issue and there will be pressure to fell.

There is also the suitability of trees to a particular environment. Beech, for example, does not like salty conditions and is unlikely to thrive in coastal settings, as one architect I know of found out, when an avenue of these trees planted in a high profile office development all died within a year of planting. There are alternative species which can flourish in such settings. There can be the temptation to plant smaller, ornamental trees, especially as they don’t take up so much space. Unfortunately, whilst there is a place for Malus (apple) and Prunus (Cherry), these trees have shorter life spans (typically 50-60 years) and make less of an impact compared to the larger Birch, London Plane and Chestnuts. And whilst the oak is a national treasure tree, it rarely thrives in urban settings, preferring parks and open spaces.

Trees are valuable. I see many as being local unsung heroes, like the army of dinner ladies, care assistants and sports coaches who are occasionally celebrated. The contribution trees make is largely unseen, like the oxygen they produce and carbon dioxide they remove from the atmosphere. It is possible to allocate a financial value to many trees, depending on the setting. This is usually based on size, vigour and contribution, depending on the setting. Sometimes, I value a tree after it has been damaged, to provide a price for insurance settlement. I have also valued a tree which was destroyed, to enable replacement. A tree whose
retention limits a development can be valued based on how much its removal would increase the value of the development. This can be useful in allocating a budget for mitigation planting works. However, some of the value is priceless and irreplaceable.

When I survey trees on a potential development site, I am looking for the specimens which will contribute to the site in the future. A developer will often have ideas and plans of what they wish to do with the site. My aim is to identify what trees are worth retaining and how the proposed development could affect them. This includes the relationship the development is likely to have with the surrounding area, and how the setting will look in ten years’ time, and beyond.

We do value trees, and protect them with Tree Preservation Orders, which are part of the planning system. These protect trees in the interests of amenity (a feature which is not actually defined) and have been used for since 1947 to enable local authorities to safeguard trees of merit from poor pruning or felling. However, the system is limited. Regardless of stature, importance or historic value, a tree has no protection unless it is subject to an Order (or has the good fortune to be growing within a Conservation Area, an irony given that this designation exists to protect the historic environment).

Many of our churchyards are home to Yew trees which can pre-date the churches themselves. Some are more than 1000 years old, yet they can easily be damaged by ill-considered pruning or felling, sometimes on spurious grounds, including health and safety (what would happen if someone ate one of the berries?). Sometimes, there is greater thought to undertaking minor repairs to the church  building than pruning of the Yews, which are sensitive in how they are managed.

In 2014, a Cedar planted by the Duke of Wellington, situated in a National Trust garden, was felled, in part because it no longer fitted the plans for the garden. Without formal protection, its historic connection was insufficient to ensure retention. The local authority was informed of proposals to simply prune the tree, so chose not to serve a Tree Preservation Order. The decision was then made by local staff to go beyond their original proposal and remove the tree entirely.

As trees get older, their value as wildlife habitats increases, and each tree becomes more irreplaceable. Indeed, the late Professor Oliver Rackham concluded that such is the ecological value of a single 500 year old oak that 10,000 100-year old oaks would not compensate for its loss. I thought of this observation when I read of plans to build a new motorway service station on the M42, near to Solihull. Early plans showed the development extending in to an area of ancient woodland (which is irreplaceable, and unlike an historic building cannot actually be moved due to local dynamics). The developers have promised to plant more trees than would be felled, which suggests they haven’t appreciated what they are dealing with.

Considering other valuable trees under threat, a 200 year old Pear in Worcestershire has the misfortune to be in the route of the planned HS2 rail line. To retain its genetic line, cuttings have been taken, but these will not replace the original. That tree is still standing, but earlier this year, the former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles approved controversial plans to extend a quarry on to land home to a 40 acre ancient woodland, which is irreplaceable, on the basis that the economic benefits of having stone from the quarry for road building outweighed the loss of this ecological gem. Whilst post-industrial landscaping can transform a site, it doesn’t replace a feature such as the habitat within an ancient woodland, which will have taken half a millennium to form.

Our modern appreciation of trees began with the loss of many Elms in the 1960s and 1970s through Dutch Elm Disease, which decimated the population of these giants within the UK. This led to the formation of the Tree Council in 1975 and the National Tree Planting Week in 1973, ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’. Sadly, there are few Elms in the landscape today, and other trees including Horse Chestnut, Larch, Oak and London Plane are all threatened by various pathogens. Elms were
affected by a fungus which attacks the vascular system, which is particularly difficult for trees to withstand. Just under the bark of every tree are cells which transport water from the roots to the shoots. Called xylem vessels, they are long and thin, like our nerve cells, and particularly effective at getting water where it is needed. If a cell is attacked, the tree isolates it by forming a thick, impenetrable wall on the outside. The cell is now dead, and the invading organism has been stopped. Unfortunately, the cell can no longer function, and unless replaced, the ability of the tree to continue to get water to the upper branches is limited.

One of the challenges we face is the tendency to focus on a small number of plant species within planting schemes, and to plant timber in plantations. So frequently, we see streets lined with a single species, be it Limes, London Plane or Norway Maple, ideal conditions for pathogens to flourish, whether they be insects or vascular-attacking bacterium. Larch is affected by a bacterium which affects the vascular system. Much of the Larch in the UK is being grown for timber, in plantations. These are being decimated, with the preferred solution being to clear fell and harvest the timber before it is damaged by the disease.

Horse Chestnut has been affected by Bleeding Canker, another vascular pathogen. There was a time when I feared it would go the way of the Elm, and possibly be wiped out. Oak is suffering from Sudden Oak Decline and a pathogen affecting branch stability threatens the London Plane. However, as we seek to champion our trees, all is not doom and gloom. Researchers such as Dr. Glynn Percival, who runs a research centre in Reading, are exploring how trees naturally respond to attacks. The Indian Chestnut is naturally resistance to Bleeding Canker, and can be planted in preference. The importance of good roots and nourished, well-aerated soil, is being recognised as a key element in equipping our champions, whether they be high profile, or the trees within the local neighbourhood.

In the States, a two-pronged approach to pest control, of providing fertiliser to affected trees and injecting insecticides, has not been as successful as expected. This human intervention was found to affect the natural balance. The fertiliser caused a flush of growth in the trees, which meant they were less well equipped to resist the pests. Meanwhile, the pests enjoyed a feast of new foliage. They were able to absorb the insecticide without being affected. However, as it became stored in the bodies of the pests, they themselves became toxic, and thus their natural predators were soon dying. It seems we are better equipped when we work with nature! Meanwhile, the larger trees, the ones which take up valuable space, are the specimens which host the natural predators. Free trade doesn’t help, as imported timber and living plant material is often host to the pests we are trying to combat. It actually does much damage in the battle to protect trees and other parts of the environment.

Trees and other plants are important to so many aspects of our lives. They help to clean the air, enhance quality of life, cool the air, combat flooding and provide habitat for wildlife. Perhaps we need to do more to champion these contributions. Ted Green, a pioneer of the Ancient Tree Forum which champions our more elderly trees, often shares his musing to groups of tree enthusiasts that people visiting historic homes in the UK will travel great distances and walk miles to look around a building which may be less than two centuries old, and be oblivious to the trees within the landscape that date back to the Tudors!

I thought of this recently when I visited the Borrowdale Yews. Originally four trees, now three, and dating from the time of Christ, they are tucked away in an obscure location on a hill side in Borrowdale. Surrounded by a fenced compound, there is little ceremony to promote them and their history. Identified as one of the 100 champion trees by the Tree Council to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, they are evidently special. As I  visited them, I met a rambler who had just walked past them, and was unaware of the historic treasure just a few metres away.

One proposal aimed at protecting our heritage trees is to create the status of ‘green monument’, which can then be allocated to trees and other environmental

Did you know that about 75% of all of the veteran trees in Western Europe are here in the UK? It is true, and an amazing resource. These are the truly special trees, which connect us with our past, and demonstrate resilience. They are champions. We also need to be investing in the next generation of veteran trees, and in the local trees which enhance our lives. This is why I like to work with developers to seek to retain the better trees within development sites and help to design quality landscapes.

Those who seek to protect their neighbourhood can be criticised as NIMBYs. However, I see value in working to enhance the local environment and to protect the trees around us, to recognise their value, whether this can be measured financially or is actually priceless. Championing the champions helps to highlight the contribution that these trees make and what they need to thrive, and encourage people to plant the next generation

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