Sheffield’s tree protestors show stainless steel

This is the post I’ve been thinking about for months. Yep, the one about how they’re cutting down all the street trees in Sheffield.

Until now I didn’t feel I could quite do it justice, but a few days ago I went to Sheffield to meet the campaigners and to see for myself what was going on. I was impressed and appalled in equal measure; impressed by the beautiful canopy that does still grace the city, impressed by the determination and positivity of the protestors and their very worthy cause, and appalled by the reckless actions of the city council and their contractor, Amey.

Death Row: Kenwood Park Road, typical of lime tree-lined avenues in the Nether Edge area of Sheffield. Note the yellow ribbons on condemned trees.

I was asked to lead a guided walk through the leafy streets of the grand Victorian neighbourhood of Nether Edge as part of the Sheffield Street Tree Festival. Now, I should say the point of the Sheffield Street Tree Festival was to celebrate the city’s trees rather than to be a focus for protest, and this was the sense that pervaded the festival. But everyone in attendance was, I’m sure, all too aware that the festival had been born out of the community brought together through adversity, so the fate of Sheffield’s trees was never far from our thoughts.

Community Chest: A doomed lime tree has it’s CAVAT valuation attached – £40,948

Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK, it is home to 4.5 million trees, a fact provided by the city council (retrieved 01/10/2018), whose veracity on arboreal matters may, at times, appear wanting. This huge figure has been deployed in the propaganda war around the street trees, of which, we are told there are 36,000, and so to lose some of these is not unreasonable, surely? And again, according to the council the losses will amount to just 0.3% of the total tree canopy – a mere trifle. But 0.3% of 4.5 million is 13,500. That’s more than a third of the city’s street trees! And if that’s not bad enough, campaigners eventually managed to get the contract between the council and Amey into the public domain in which it stated 17,500 trees would be cut down.

Our group of sixty street tree admirers – something of a record for me, even in the urban arboretum of Hackney I’ve only had 25 – walked the streets of Nether Edge on a route that I was doing ‘blind’. I wasn’t disappointed: the street tree canopy here is soaring, verdant and in fine fettle. It’s easy to understand why Sheffield residents feel so strongly. Nether Edge was laid out as broad avenues of large stone villas lined predominantly, but by no means exclusively, with common limes or lindens (Tilia x europaea). Many trees must date from the area’s original development, so most are well over a century old. These vigorous hybrid trees do well in Sheffield and are in their prime, with many decades, or even centuries of service left in them. The splendid boulevards of Nether Edge have survived world wars, industrial pollution and post-industrial decline, but among their number, arbitrarily, individual trees are now destined for the chainsaw. The protestors have attached yellow ribbons to the trees earmarked for felling and wandering down one of these streets it is shocking to see how many, and how randomly they have been selected. It’s not just limes, other trees have been condemned including London planes, horse chestnuts, sycamores, oaks and, most cruelly, a towering elm on Chelsea Road. The elm, a Huntingdon (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’), is enormous and may well be the only one of its kind left in Sheffield having somehow managed to survive the ravages of Dutch elm disease. Not only is this individual tree worthy of veneration and preservation – who knows, it could be an important source of disease resistant genes – it also hosts rare white-letter hairstreak butterflies, a species that feeds only on elms.

Chainsaw Massacre: The Chelsea Road Elm surrounded by well-wishers at the Sheffield Street Tree Festival

So why are the trees being cut down? This frequently asked question does not appear on the council’s website or indeed on that of its ‘infrastructure support service provider’, Amey plc, the recipient of the multi-billion pound Streets Ahead contract to ‘upgrade’ the city’s streets.

The council argue that the the city’s street tree stock is mature or over mature – code for ‘too old’ – and therefore needs replacing. This very tenuous assertion simply doesn’t stack up. Yes, many trees are mature, but they are also in rude health, so why cut them down and replace them with ten-year-old saplings?

Maybe the motivations for felling trees are more depressing than that. In the murky world of cash strapped local authorities and opaque PFI contracts it’s easy to imagine the types of discussions being had. Picture the boardroom at Amey’s discrete Oxford head office and a question being posed along the lines of, “how do we increase our margins on the Sheffield street tree management contract?” It doesn’t take a very creative bean counter to deduce that a reduction in the number of mature and over mature assets will reduce exposure to costs associated with managing those very same large and tall assets. Kiss my face! (With apologies to Alan Partridge).

Ready to Rumble: Rundle Road represents one of Sheffield’s finest mature streetscapes

But however it was arrived at, a policy amounting to civic vandalism is being wrought by the city council and Amey plc. Thousands of perfectly healthy street trees across the city have been felled, and thousands more are on death row as part of what appears to be a supremely short-termist cost saving exercise. Sure, trees are going to be replanted, but that’s not the point – how can you replace the history, grandeur and joy that towering, consistent avenues of mature trees bring? And, of course, you don’t need me to bang on about the ecosystem services, mental and physical wellbeing, and traffic calming benefits they bring too…

If you’re interested in reading more about the Sheffield situation, the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website is a good place to start. But there’s lots more too. Perhaps because the protests are so righteous, the council and contractors (not to mention South Yorkshire Police) have been so belligerent and the whole David and Goliath story is so quintessentially English, reams of media articles have been written about it:

If you’ve got this far, here’s something to restore your faith in humankind:

The Heartwood Community Choir’s first public streetside performance of ‘Heartwood’, written especially for the Sheffield tree protectors by writer and academic Robert Macfarlane. Performed under the canopy of the condemned Chelsea Road Elm.

On another Plane

I’ve been working up to the inevitable London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) post for some time but this, you may be pleased to know, is not it. Instead I’d like to compare notes on one of it’s parents, the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis).

Platanus Orientalis foliage
Plane difference: The Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis) can be distinguished from the London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) by its more deeply lobed leaves

Two examples of these relatives of the acerifolia (Maple-leaved) tree inhabit Brunswick Square Gardens in the heart of Bloomsbury next door to Coram’s Fields and the fascinating Foundling Museum.

These gardens are what remain of an undoubtedly fine Georgian Square noted as the fictional home of Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Now they are surrounded by more modern developments: no buildings of those romantic days survive and the small public park that is now Brunswick Square Gardens is managed by Camden Council.

One reminder of the past (although very much part of the present) is the enormous and venerable London Plane (P. x acerifolia) that dominates the gardens. This magnificent tree, possibly a remnant from the original development, will have witnessed many changes around the Square and tolerated a varied cocktail of noxious fumes during its centuries on the spot.

In its shadow are two equally remarkable Oriental Planes (P. oriental). This pair – of indeterminate age – are Bonsai trees in comparison. Although much smaller and easier to miss they have arguably more character; they exhibit pot-bellied, burry old boles reminiscient of ancient oaks and have elegantly spreading canopies developed over decades, if that is a suitably ageing unit to use.

Platanus orientalis were classified by Linnaeus and were so named due to their origin in the east. ‘Oriental’ in eighteenth century botanical circles referred to anywhere east of Sweden, in this case the Balkans and Turkey. The Oriental Plane has been a feature and often the focal point of Greek villages, the late Roger Deakin mentions an ancient hollow Plane on the island of Lesbos in his book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘:

‘At what must have been the village centre, the living remains of an enormous oriental plane stood. Its massive trunk was hollow and had broken off ten feet above the ground, perhaps as a result of a lightning bolt. It was charred inside and out, yet fresh living boughs were again springing from a tree that must once have shaded the spring and steam bath.’

Platanus Orientalis, Brunswick Square Gardens, London
Plane to see: One of the Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis) in Brunswick Square Gardens, London showing it's bulbous bole and typical multistemmed, spreading form

My two gnarled ancestors of the London Plane are typical in their growth – according to my research the Oriental Plane can be a large tree sometimes attaining the great size common in its progeny, but often becomes multistemmed and spreading.

I am very fond of these two trees, they are not like other public trees in central London which have to take on trim and uniform shapes defined by triennial pruning regimes laid down by local authorities fearful of the potential damage a splintered arboreal limb might cause a no-win-no-fee solicitor or his clients.

Check out the various Planes of Brunswick Square Gardens on Google street view:

Further reading:

  1. P. orientalis entry on Wikipedia
  2. Corsham Court Oriental plane ‘most spreading tree in UK’ – BBC new story from 07/06/2011
  3. Take a look at my Plane tree set on Flickr.