British trees have found themselves featured in the press fairly regularly over the past couple of months – mainly due to the apparent madness of Sheffield City Council deciding to remove thousands of healthy specimens seemingly for no other reason than that it would be expensive to revoke the instruction now that it’s been given. The decision provoked dogged resistance from locals, and even caught the attention of the environment’s surprising new ally, Michael Gove. These sorts of decisions matter – not just because they’re aesthetically unappealing (I can’t think of many people who want to live in a city stripped bare) but because as a nation we need all the nature we can get.
We know that global biodiversity is plummeting partly as a result of climate change and intensive chemical-fuelled agriculture – the French have recently recorded alarming reductions in bird numbers (so significant that experts are warning it could spell disaster for Europe’s wildlife) and Britain has been identified as being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One of the key factors behind this global dilemma is habitat loss.
In the UK, ancient woodland – constantly under threat from the pressure to “develop” green areas – is one of our most valuable habitats. What isn’t necessarily so obvious is the fact that a single veteran tree is in and of itself a crucial wildlife habitat – a little universe humming with life, a microcosm of diversity. According to Back from the Brink, 2000 species depend on ancient trees for their survival in the UK. Fungi, beetles, birds – as the Woodland Trust explain on their website, the fact that ancient trees are in a state of prolonged decay makes them a vital and complex home for a rich variety of flora and fauna. And crucially, as the Woodland Trust also goes on to point out, ancient trees often aren’t located within existing woodland. They are the solitary remnants of former hunting forests, the ancient guardians in our oldest churchyards, pockets of wilderness in housing estates and city centres.
Biodiversity aside, these ageing monuments to centuries past also offer us romance and mystery – a tangible reminder of what our landscape used to be, the connective tissue joining us to the millions of people who walked under their shade before us. Our ancient trees – Tolkein’s Ents – have born witness to princes and poachers, lovers and mourners, scrumpers and twitchers. And as a nation, we obviously do care. The protestors in Sheffield – ordinary people moved to take action by the bizarre destruction of their city’s trees – seem to be on the cusp of forcing something of an about turn. John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, George Monbiot – there’s a reason nature or countryside writers are in the ascendancy in Britain. Millions of us feel a keen affinity with our natural world, and as such want to see it protected.
And the first step in ensuring that protection is to enshrine it in law and government policy. Whilst it’s heartening to see that the campaigning of organisations like the Woodland Trust has led to new protections for ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) , inexplicably individual trees have been excluded explicitly from these safeguards. It’s a critical oversight which seems to ignore the value of these precious habitats – and which encapsulates the pressures being felt by vital habitats the world over. What we need to remember – to paraphrase the excellent videos made by Conservation International over the past few years – is that we need nature. It doesn’t need us. So let’s take the opportunity to remind the Government that whilst the developments regarding woodland protection are extremely welcome, individual trees are also of critical importance to our nation’s ecology. We have until 10 May to respond – the Woodland Trust makes it very easy to do so via their website: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/support-stronger-planning-policy-for-ancient-woodland/.