March 29th 2023 – On the importance of trees in public places

It would not be possible to write an environment column without making some comment to the terrible destruction of trees in Plymouth city centre, despite a huge public outcry at the council’s plans, despite the fact it is nesting season, despite the fact that city centre’s trees softened the hard landscape, cleaned the air and offered shelter from both rain and sun. Many were planted in the 1950s after the Luftwaffe had razed the city to the ground, and so represented a spirit of hope and regeneration. Seventy years later a council elected to serve the populace has sent out a team in the night to destroy these trees, and in doing so has struck a great blow to the city. Shame on them. I cannot be the only person who cannot bear the thought of visiting the city centre now, and I know this will have a knock on effect on local businesses. 

On the day of I writing this article, Friday 24th March, a court hearing will be taking place in London to see what will happen to the remaining nine trees that were saved by a late injunction. There will also be discussion as to what happens next to the felled trees. The costs for legally defending these trees have been large, so if you would like to support STRAW (Save the Trees of Amanda Way) then donations will be gratefully received. Visit https://strawplymouth.com/ for more.

There is a classic lack of understanding about ecology in the actions of the council. They argue that felling existing trees is fine, because they are planting semi-mature trees in their place. It takes many years for an eco-system to build, and it is well known that even in the most perfect of settings semi-mature trees almost always do badly, usually being overtaken by their juvenile counterparts within a few years. Given that a city centre is a truly unfriendly environment for trees, with constant compaction from feet, concrete-contaminated soil, pollution from dog and human urine and none of the support systems offered by fields or woodland, then the prognosis for new planting is not great.

A mature tree has a healthy and strong root system that can withstand a fair bit of adversity, including for many species the loss of the tree itself. When this happens the root system gets busy in putting out new shoots and regrows the tree that has been lost. This is a system known as coppicing. The resulting growth is multi stemmed and rather bush-like to begin. Coppiced trees will create shelter for birds and quickly begin doing what trees to so well – creating oxygen, reducing pollution and growing ecology. 

We have ten acres of woodland that was clear felled in the 1960s and planted with Japanese Larch. A few years ago we cleared the larch to reduce the risk of phytophthora (sudden oak death disease – a common killer of larch) and restore the woodland to its native state. Natural coppicing has meant that many of the trees felled in the ‘60s are now as magnificent as they would have been years ago. Moving onward I think our best hope is that Plymouth Council allow a decent number of trees to coppice naturally, so we can look forward to being able to once again enjoy a green and pleasant city centre.

In the meantime I think its important that we all have a think about our own close environment. The mass destruction of trees in Plymouth occurs on a micro scale every day in our own gardens. So before you cut down a hedge or a tree, or replace grass with plastic turf, consider what the greater implications are; the future of a whole eco-system of insects, butterflies, moths, and larger birds and mammals right up to buzzards and badgers are all affected by our actions. Small trees will not replace the eco-function of large trees for many decades. And if you can, build for the future. There’s still a week or so to get bare rooted hedges in. If each of us planted a tree or hedge in response to the travesty that has taken place in Plymouth it wouldn’t solve the problem in the city centre, but might go some small way to making amends to nature at large.

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