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A cathedral of trees in a Sussex wood

It’s been a year now since my neighbourhood journey into standing up for trees began. It started as so many things do for me these days, on a dog walk.

My rescue companion, Duke and I were out walking the woods and farmland when we came across the unedifying sight of chainsaws hacking down a dozen or more trees that had stood stubbornly dividing fields for a lifetime. Oaks and beech trees that had provided a welcome windbreak, held soil together and gave welcome habitat to the local wildlife.

The felling team were in a hurry. I watched as one of the chainsaw-wielding workers literally ran to make the next cut. Locals were near to tears. The onlooking landowner remarked, “It’ll look bl**dy lovely when they’re gone”. And soon they were gone. Another field bigger. And all so an intensive farmer could farm more intensively.

The resulting controversy saw me appointed by the Parish Council to be its first honorary tree warden. I’ve since been mapping out trees that look like good candidates for a TPO – Tree Protection Order. I keep an eye out for local felling applications, have a dialogue with the local Forestry Commission, and have published a briefing on ‘How to Protect Trees in our Parish’.

And so, my portfolio of causes had continued to broaden.

What I’ve come to see is that a healthy future for us all depends on joining the dots and seeing how things fit together. Trees are a perfect case in point.

7 year old Archie transfixed by The Mens nature reserve in West Sussex

Stationary Superheroes

Trees may be stationary, but they have tremendous superpowers, including making our lives healthier. They reduce the impact of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow, improve water quality, alleviate flooding, and reduce soil erosion. They provide shelter and food for wildlife, and are important habitats for our own recreation.

Trees also make us happier. Research shows that trees not only clean the air, giving us oxygen to breathe, but also lift our feelings. According to Scientific American, numerous studies speak to the positive effects that trees have on our mental health. A study by The Nature Conservancy in the States showed that walking among trees in a city park correlates with reducing anxiety and depression.

Prof Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian newspaper that “just seeing and smelling trees benefit health and well-being”.

Carbon Sinks

Trees also eat greenhouse gases for breakfast – their ‘food-making’ process of photosynthesis involves absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in their wood.

But more than that, a new study published in The Lancet reveals how planting more trees in cities could cut deaths from summer heat. High temperatures in cities can seriously impact our health, including causing cardiorespiratory failure, hospital admission and even premature death.

Having looked at urban tree coverage in 93 European cities, an international team of scientists calculated that doubling it would cool cities by about 0·4 degrees centigrade, reducing heat-related deaths by 39.5%, saving more than 2,500 lives.

Planting in Cities

Getting serious about urban tree planting is becoming increasingly urgent as fluctuations of extreme temperatures become more frequent due to climate change.

Protecting and planting more trees in our locality is in all our interests. We rightly castigate destruction of rainforests in countries far away, yet deforestation closer to home often goes unnoticed.

Across the UK, a staggering 14 per cent of tree cover has been lost in the last two decades.

An early Autumn morning in Sussex and a beautiful Maple tree caught in the morning light

In Peril

Scotland has the most tree cover in the UK but its globally unique Caledonian pinewoods are on a “knife-edge”, according to a new major study by Trees for Life. The study, the first of its kind for 60 years, shows that the pinewoods that remain are in danger of being the last generation in a line stretching back to the last ice age.

Characterised by Scots pine trees, the Caledonian Forest of the Highlands used to be a vast wilderness, which was home to great herds of grazing animals preyed upon by lynx, wolves and other predators.

Now, after centuries of deforestation just some 2% of the forest remains. The spread of non-native trees, overgrazing by deer and rising temperatures due to climate change are all threatening the very existence of the remaining ancient forest.

Ecologist James Rainey, who led the study, told the BBC that “These pinewoods should be playing a key role in Scotland’s fight-back against the climate and nature emergencies, but right now, most are on their last legs. It’s not too late to turn this around, but that means seriously stepping-up restoration and rewilding action“.

Community Action

Whether the once mighty Caledonian forest, the dense canopy of the Amazon far away, or stands of trees in our local community, all trees matter.

In protecting trees, a key thing to know is that before anyone can cut down trees in England at least, they may need to get a felling licence from the government authority. It is an offence to fell trees without a licence, where one would have been needed. There are some exceptions that can apply, but in many instances a felling licence will be required.

Licensing measures for tree felling are not new; they have been in force for 50 years. Yet, despite these measures, trees remain vulnerable to unsympathetic felling.

Preserving trees is increasingly being recognized as hugely important for our future happiness and well-being. Concerned citizens can play a big role in looking after our natural heritage trees by being their eyes and ears, looking out for their best interests and thereby creating conditions for a better future, at both local and global level.

Note: A version of this blog was first published in The Scotsman on Monday 13th March, 2023

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