The oak, the ash and the bonnie ivy tree

The UK has 7,500 volunteer tree wardens, who fight to preserve the country's arboreal heritage. But homeowners, planning authorities and vandals make their crusade increasingly difficult.

Twenty years ago next week, south-east England was battered by its worst storms since 1703. Nineteen people died and 15 million trees were destroyed, including six of the seven famous oaks at Sevenoaks in Kent.

But there was at least one good outcome for the environment. As a result of the storms, the Tree Council started a national volunteer network of tree wardens. There are now 7,500 tree wardens in the UK working towards the charity's mission of "making trees matter".

For many wardens, the devastation of 15 and 16 October 1987 remains clearly etched in their minds. "I was 18 at the time and it really upset me," says Julie Powell, one of 40 tree wardens in Basingstoke, Hampshire. "I remember driving along the Lewes to Brighton road and it brought tears to my eyes to see them all fallen that morning. I only realised then what a difference they make to how the world looks."

Powell did not know her ash from her elder in those days. But now she is responsible for cultivating seeds into saplings at a tree nursery on a small strip of land squashed between a football pitch and a residential development at Whiteditch, close to Basingstoke town centre. When the 200 saplings of mainly oak, hazel, elm and birch are big enough, they will be passed on to local scouts and other community groups that want to plant trees.

Although Britain has largely been spared from storm damage so far this year, the impact of the summer floods would have been lessened if we had more trees, says Nicola Williams, assistant arboricultural officer at Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council. "There would not have been the rush of water into villages because the trees would have slowed their progress," says Williams, who oversees the district's tree warden scheme and is herself a tree warden.

Man-made menaces

But it is man-made menaces that take up much of the urban tree warden's time. The Tree Council, which grew out of the government's Plant a Tree in '73 campaign 34 years ago, estimates monitoring planning applications and felling licences takes up a tenth of its wardens' time.

"We know from talking to wardens that there is growing dismay about what is being referred to as 'the chainsaw massacre' - the disappearance of so many magnificent mature and ancient trees from our towns and cities because of the tendency to fell trees that some people see as a nuisance, dangerous or damaging to buildings," says Margaret Lipscombe, director of urban programmes at the Tree Council. "This is not often the case, but the trees get cut down anyway."

In rapidly growing Basingstoke, developers' chainsaws are rarely silent. Those wielding them can be particularly devious. Some cut down trees before applying for planning permission to avoid having to contest tree preservation orders later on; others slice rings around barks deep enough to ensure the trees will have to be felled, thus saving themselves the bother.

The town's Eastrop Park is victim to a more mindless form of vandalism: branch-snapping. "They never pull two branches off the same tree; they always go for a new one," laments Williams. The fight against crime cares little for the landscape. "We are often asked to remove trees on the grounds that CCTV cameras can't follow criminals," she adds. "Usually, our answer is: 'Can't you move your cameras?' With luck they go away, muttering."

Trees and cities 

Soaring house prices have made homeowners equally callous. "Something goes crack inside a house, the person living there sees a tree outside and suddenly there is a subsidence claim," says Williams. "The landowner often panics and thinks they can't afford a claim, so they take the tree down."

The sight of big trees in built-up areas is becoming rarer. The grand old oaks and ashes that have graced towns and villages through the generations are gradually being replaced by what Williams describes as "lollipop" trees: smaller varieties with shorter root spreads, which are kinder to buildings but lack majesty. "Many Victorian trees are coming to the ends of their lives and the pressure on land is enormous," she says.

Tree wardens work with parish councils to check planning applications so they are prepared for all eventualities. Protecting the treescape requires detective work, as well as muddy boots. The Tree Council estimates that its wardens give 1.8 million hours a year to the cause. Although they can do little to stop the ravages of nature, they do their utmost to guard against man's thoughtlessness - and have fun too. "It's nice being around others who feel the same way," says Powell. "You can't have conversations about trees with many people."

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