Worcestershire Record No. 22 April 2007 pp. 20-22


Wendy Lamour

Famous last words!

When the call came through to Worcestershire Wildlife Trust (WWT) that a “500 year old” oak was about to be felled Harry* contacted me by e-mail. Intrigued I followed it up with a call to him the following morning. “It may be too late but can you go and have a look? If it’s already been felled there just might be something left that you can measure” said Harry.

Unaware that there were any such ancient trees left in ‘my neck of the woods’ I was certainly intrigued to find out more. Apparently there had been some publicity in an Evening Paper, but I had not seen or heard any of it and no-one who knew of my interest in ancient trees had thought to give me a call…..until now.

“OK Harry, I can go this afternoon” I replied.

It was Friday afternoon and yes I was too late! One of the residents informed me that the tree had been felled on the Monday and the root ground out on the Thursday. All I could see was a covering of fresh chippings within a small circle of cobbles and a wide open space where the tree had stood.

“Sorry Harry, I did try but it was too late!” I said.

The oak before felling and a chainsaw in action.    Pictures: Wendy Lamour

A wonderful oak had apparently been growing on this spot for a long, long time. Once in the grounds of a nearby large house, it had obviously been shown consideration and respect when developers had moved in many years ago. A thoughtful circle of houses were erected around it giving it pride of place at the end of a quiet little cul-de-sac just out of sight of the main road. I later visited the website ‘Google Earth’ which showed how well its canopy filled the space. That Friday afternoon, however, there was no sign that a large, old land-mark tree had stood on this spot for so many years. Not a cracked twig, scattering of old bark, dead leaves or acorns. ‘They’ had done an excellent job of removing all evidence from the confines of this little road, hidden from the main drag and only visited by those who lived there and their visitors. No arguments there then, job well done….or so ‘they’ might have thought! As far as gathering data for the Tree Register was concerned it appeared that I was indeed too late….or was I?

I became more and more intrigued by the tale that I was hearing, especially from one resident who had looked out on this tree for about 50 years and was understandably extremely upset at its loss. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to find out more. There appeared particular concern at the speed at which the whole operation had been carried out, with no time given to the acquisition of a second opinion or the collection of biological data by people such as WWT. Perhaps ‘they’ had had the foresight to record such information.

I learnt, from the most informative letter that was sent to the residents by the local Council’s Arboriculture Team, that as the result of a recent tree survey in the area, at least three named species of fungi had been noted growing on the tree in question. Due to further evidence of decay at the site of an old pruning scar and in recognition of the significance of this tree’s antiquity, it had been felt prudent to bring in a ‘Picas’ scanner before making a final decision. I was later to understand that these ultra-sound scanners are used to verify and determine the state of tissue and location of weaknesses. The letter went on with a reference to Dr. Klaus Mattheck (apparently of Tree Bio-mechanics fame). It stated that, whilst the tree “is not yet outside of its own self-optimised safety factor”, the considered opinion of the Arboriculture team concerned was that “remedial works would not benefit the tree in the long term, nor would it reduce the tree’s ultimate demise brought on by these aggressive pathogens” and it would therefore regretfully have to be felled on the grounds of safety. Residents were assured that, as a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) had previously been imposed, a replacement would automatically be planted in its place for their future enjoyment. There was no suggestion as to what species that might be. It should be noted, perhaps, that although a TPO had been put on this tree a Land Search did not reveal an owner and it therefore became classified as a ‘Highways’ tree with responsibility falling to the local Council.

I discovered that a continuing concern of the residents is that such drastic action can be, and indeed was, taken in what appeared to be a very short period of time (letter received 22nd Jan. Tree felled 18th Feb) and without being given an opportunity to seek another opinion, to discuss alternative options and possibly come to some form of compromise within the realms of ‘Health and Safety’. I was told that even a local councillor came back with the reply that ‘nothing can be done’!

Well, letters and talk are all very well but I was conscious that I had not actually seen the tree for myself and was still no nearer getting any useful data for Harry. I had, however, been shown some excellent photographs and I consoled myself that I could always take some measurements from these. By now though I wanted to see if I could find what was left of the tree and obtain some data from its remains. I sent an e-mail to the Arboricultural Officer who had signed the letter to the residents. Unfortunately he had gone off sick and was not to return for a few weeks. However, he did eventually call me and I learnt a lot from him about the enormous number of trees that have to be managed, about policies, and about prioritising available funds, before he had to put the phone down on me to answer an emergency situation. Something about someone not allowing a tree to be cut down because it was two hundred years old?!! Perhaps the public were responding at last to letters that had appeared in local newspapers. When I called later to continue our discussion and endeavour to get some more specific answers he was still not in his office and we have yet to resume our conversation. I do know that a response always has to be given to e-mails and letters but I do like to actually speak with people too!

Having made myself known to our TPO in the past he was another port of call. Reminding him of my role as Voluntary Ancient Tree Recorder we had an interesting chat resulting in him hoping to source a photo of the tree before felling, find out where the timber had gone and any other relevant data. He was unable to advise me of any similar sized, or larger oak trees in the borough and giving me a chest height diameter (dbh) measurement of 1.6-1.7m agreed that this must have been a big one! Subsequently I received a call from a member of our local ‘Green-care Team’ who had found my number on his desk. (A case of ‘this one’s yours’ I wondered?) He was unaware of my concerns but listened patiently, explained what he could and promised to get back to me, but would I be patient as he would be out of the office for two weeks! I made a note to ring him if he didn’t ring me first! Surprisingly he called next morning having located the tree trunk near Solihull, but I would have to go soon as it was being moved on in a day or two!

The trunk of the felled oak lying in a timber yard. Note the area of decay. Pictures: Wendy Lamou

So, at last, I was able to get some measurements for Harry. The tree had been sawn at ground level giving artificially large measurements of around 6ft 6ins (2m) in diameter, which I believe led to the previous calculation of a greater age than was perhaps actually true. Eventually I settled on an estimated dbh of about 5ft (1.5m); still a good size and therefore certainly a good age. The bole was still solid and completely intact measuring 12ft (4m) in length and apparently weighing just over 8 tons. The diameters of the two co-ordinated stems where they divided from the main stem was 4ft (1.2m), in themselves indicative of the many years that this tree had grown on this spot. Of a similar size to the two co-ordinates and at the same height was the old pruning scar, the main culprit it seems in sealing the fate of this tree. Saw cuts were too rough for me to measure annual rings but I did find a little spot on one of the two smaller diameters and took some details from there, just out of interest. What was so amazing to me was the apparent solidness of the trunk with no burrs or epicormic growth, no algae, moss or lichens, no obvious damage at all apart from the scar at bole height. Those who had admired this tree outside their homes for so many years appeared justified in their anger and their concern for ‘which tree’s next’? This one appeared so solid. Indeed, even in the recent January gales it had stood firm and had raised no concern for its safety. From photographs taken by the residents, together with those that I was eventually able to take myself, I have been able to calculate overall height and judge canopy detail, all information that might have been deemed lost for ever if I had turned round and gone home that Friday afternoon. The fungal damage from which this oak was suffering was made more evident by the exposed cut across the base, but to my relatively inexperienced eyes it seemed minimal and I still find it difficult to accept that it was extensive enough to warrant complete felling even given the situation in which it had been growing. My knowledge and experience of tree bio-mechanics, enhanced by two years of volunteering and recording for WWT, is based solely on visual evidence from the veteran trees that I have discovered still in situ.

Closer views of the small zone of decay which condemned the tree. Pictures: Wendy Lamour

In the course of the dialogues that I have had with various members of the Arboriculture Team the possibility of crown reduction to a more appropriate and safer level has been discussed. It would appear that it was an option that, all things considered, had not seemed economically viable given the cost, not only of the task itself but also of the future maintenance that it would apparently demand. From an Arboricultural Officer’s point of view it appears to be a question of ‘so much to do, so little money to do it with’. It really does seem to be a question of “What can be saved here, can be spent more effectively there!”

What really has come across loudest of all is fear of litigation. It would seem that once a tree is recognised as having its safety compromised in any way it is very likely to be removed completely rather than risk the possibility, however vague and unproven that might be, of being taken to court by someone seeking compensation for damage or suffering caused. It seems an emotive subject with diverse points of view and one which is not about to go away.

A major concern remains that, even at the end of the day when all other options have been explored and all parties agree that a tree like this one has to be felled; important opportunities are being missed like an opportunity for the collection and dissemination of ecological data. The opportunity to inform interested parties was in this case denied through lack of time. Equally, no time appeared to be given for people to come to terms with the idea of losing such a dominant feature in their everyday landscape. Little time was apparently given for involvement of the wider community, to educate and inform. All processes which might have enabled a greater appreciation of the value of ancient trees and the on-going need to source adequate future funding. No time was afforded for the presentation of the tree’s history which may have motivated discovery and learning through the exploration of old maps and documents. No time was given to explore the social history and to talk to the people for whom this had been such a landmark tree all their lives. And what of the youngsters denied that most wonderful experience of laying their heads against its trunk, closing their eyes and giving it just one last hug. It needed it!

If there is any moral to this story it surely has to be ‘See it today, Record it today’….or you might just be too late!

The cul-de-sac after the oak had been felled and the stump ground out. All that remains is a small pile of wood chips. Picture: Wendy Lamour

*Harry Green, who together with John Tilt instigated the collection of data for the Register of Ancient Trees in Worcestershire.

[On the 3rd May 2007 an interesting an well-informed article appeared in The Guardian newspaper entitled CHAINSAW MASSACRE on the unnecessary loss of city trees and their importance to both the appearance of urban areas and our health. It may still be viewable on their web site. Ed]

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