Protect Britain’s ancient trees

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-Woodland Truststronger-planning-policy-for-ancient-woodland/.

Lower Thames Crossing

After reading This Changes Everything I decided I had to hit the books when  it comes to environmentalism – with the result that I’m studying for an Environmental Studies A-Level over the next couple of years. I’ve got my first exams in May, which is an odd thought – it’s been a good thirteen years since I sat in the gym at school doing the last lot – but I’ve absolutely loved feeling as though I’m starting to get a proper grip on the science behind the statistics. It’s given me the confidence to talk about environmentalism more freely, and every time I sit down to do my homework (with the aid of white wine, these days…)  it is forcefully hammered home to me how cavalier we are in the way we treat our natural environment.

With COP21; world leaders like Obama and Trudeau taking the lead when it comes to talking about the importance of combating climate change; and high profile protests over Arctic drilling and fracking, its seems as though more and more people are taking notice. But it’s still very high level – we know something needs to change, but it’s hard to know what we can do – and all the while, local decisions are made every day which incrementally chip away at our wildlife and natural habitats.

Things slip under the radar. There may be public consultations about proposed developments, for example, but who actually hears about them? Take the recent EU Refit  – without the brilliantly coordinated work of charities like the Woodland Trust and RSPB, how would the average person have been aware they were being given an opportunity to voice an opinion on something they may  care deeply about? It can feel obscure, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy. Which is why it’s so important to participate when you get a chance; and the Woodland Trust is championing just such a chance at the moment.

Highway England have recently floated five proposals with a view to building  a new tunnel under the River Thames linking Essex and Kent. As the Trust has pointed out, three of those proposals involve cutting a swathe through areas of ancient woodland – with the worst offending proposal affecting eight woods in total. If you think that ancient woods are, by definition, areas which have been continuously wooded since 1600 AD, knocking them down for the sake of a road is not a decision to be taken lightly; nor is it something to be imposed on an area if the public don’t support it.

There’s a disconnect, somewhere, in the way we treat our woods. On the one hand we know that they’re vital carbon sinks; that they’re greatly valued for the way in which they shape our landscape; that they’re hugely important when it comes to offering a habitat for native flora and fauna; and that they have a key role to play when it comes to flood management. And yet on the other, we’re distressingly ready to lop them down if there’s money to be made, or if it suits our program of modernization or urban expansion.

There’s a public consultation running until 24 March, which gives us a chance to defend the woods affected by Highway England’s plans: the Woodland Trust has lots of helpful information on its website, making responding as easy as possible. I’m definitely going to be adding my penny’s worth – because these are the local skirmishes we can win, one at a time. And as a pragmatist, it’s just as important to sustain these local victories as it is to participate in the sweeping, international movements.

Wood