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.

There’s Norway to Confuse a Maple

There are lots of maples, but the most commonly planted street trees are The Norwegian or Norway (Acer platanoides) and the Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus), both are handsome species and at first glance difficult to tell apart. They have a lot in common, they are similar sizes and have similar native distribution.

Spiky Scandinavian: Norway maple leaves and flowers

The differences are subtle, Norway’s leaves are spikier than Sycamore’s, their flowers are produced in distinctive fresh green clusters before the leaves appear in spring, Sycamore on the other hand produces a long pendulous flower spike or panicle. Norway’s bark is lighter coloured and grooved, compared to the darker and scalier Sycamore.

The charms of large Maples are not lost on urban tree planters – the Norway Maple especially is a popular street tree – and nurserymen realised the merits of this species early on and set to work creating a myriad of varieties. Look out for Norway Maples of various leaf colour from gold through to deep purple, fastigiate and columnar trees and the inevitable variegated variety. Significant among these charms is Norway’s ability to cope with many soil types and it’s toleration of ‘hard surface’ urban situations where it may be exposed to extremes of temperature, air pollution and drought.

Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street
Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street

Despite the Norwegian soubriquet, Acer platanoides is native over much of Europe as far west as Belgium and France. If it wasn’t for post ice-age sea level rises, a few additional centuries of continental connection may have seen both species arriving in what is now eastern Britain under their own steam. As it is, the introduction of Sycamore is lost in the mists of time and records of Norway maple in cultivation date from 1683 (according to the BRC). No doubt practical and ornamental planting of Maples has played a part in their ‘invasive’ distribution, but, as the structure of our ancient woodlands testify, ever since we needed reliable timber supplies we have controlled tree planting.

Norway maples, like Sycamore, thrive and regenerate freely in our climate and I welcome them. Among the conservation community there is a view that both species should be weeded out but I believe this is flawed. In our age of massive human environmental intervention, extinction threats to common species like Ash as well as climate change, I think we need to embrace nearly-native, vigorous large tree species that may become important components in future woodlands.

Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree
Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree

You’re never far from a Norway Maple in London, here’s a row including a purple leafed variety near Finsbury Park station:

Sycamores in the British landscape

Soon after I first became interested in plants and conservation I became aware of the concept of native and non-native species. I grew up in Dover, a port town where xenophobic attitudes are paradoxically ingrained in a population who perceive themselves to be on the frontline of an unfinished European war and are ever ready for an imminent invasion of unintelligible foreigners, so I was used to this concept and knew what was expected of me.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) in northern England
Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) on the march in northern England

In the local woodlands the unfortunate Sycamore was singled out as a non-native species, a recent invader from Alsace, Franche-Comté or maybe even further afield. Europe’s largest maple was intent on ousting our native, British trees through unseemly reproductive vigour unmatched by our altogether more restrained climax vegetation.

I made it my patriotic duty to single-handedly eradicate the Sycamore menace from local woodland where each spring thousands of seedlings would threaten the native Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and Yew (Taxus bacatta) woodland defined 10,000 years ago. Or so I thought at the time. In reality Sycamore does throw out many, many seedlings every year but these cannot survive to maturity in the shade of Yew and Beech. Sycamore is a coloniser of disturbed or open woodland and can act as a very good nursery plant for our more shade-tolerant but less fecund woodland trees. Sycamore does not therefore colonise our woodlands, but rather becomes a component of them with a part to play in the real and inclusive ecosystem. And of course our woodlands – ancient or otherwise – have been shaped by Man for our own, usually sustainable, exploitation for millennia.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) near Hadrian's Wall
Lone Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) giving it's name to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

On my recent tour o’ the North, I was struck by how important to the upland Pennine landscape the Sycamore is, it has been a part of the scene for generations. It takes on the appearance that Oak does further south where ancient and dignified trees stand sentinel in a field or as a roadside reminder of a long ago grubbed-up hedgerow.

So my view of the Sycamore has changed – I appreciate the part it plays in the landscape, it is a familiar tree to many and it is not invasive, which is perhaps the measure of how we should judge the menace posed by plants. Sycamore may not appear in prehistoric pollen records, but its arrival on British shores is a mysterious event that cannot be dated.

Looking north to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall from the former Roman military road:


There is a very interesting white paper published by the Woodland Trust on their website for those who may like to read more on the subject.