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24 Sep 07
Chainsaw massacre: loss of big trees in urban areas
By Tom Geoghegan BBC News Magazine
Two tree-planting campaigns are under way in UK cities, in an effort to reverse the "chainsaw massacre" of the past. It appears that everyone loves trees, so why are so many being lost?
The huge broad-leafed trees so loved by the Victorian planners have become part of the British urban landscape.
But campaigners believe this part of our heritage is under threat and they launched a counter-offensive on two fronts at the weekend.
The Tree Council began its seed gathering season, to encourage people to collect seeds in the wild to plant at home, ready to put in the ground as saplings next year. And a fun run in Leeds was hoping to raise the profile of a tree-planting charity, Trees for Cities.
This kind of work has been given added urgency after a recent report by the London Assembly which outlined what it called the "chainsaw massacre" - the loss of 40,000 full-grown trees in the capital in the last five years.
Although smaller ones are planted as replacements, this decline of the mature trees has been mirrored in other regional cities.
It's a great loss because these trees bring many benefits, says Trees for Cities chief executive Graham Simmonds.
As well as their beauty, they improve air quality by trapping pollution, they slow down rainfall, reduce noise pollution, provide shade and encourage healthy lifestyles, he says. And studies in the US suggest they increase emotional well-being.
No-one would pretend the carbon absorption from planting a single tree is enough to affect climate change, he says, but the moderating effect of large-leafed trees can reduce energy consumption of nearby buildings.
"There's also symbolism about planting a tree because it shows to individuals they can do something to make their mark in some way because climate change can make people over-awed. Planting a tree will have some impact and people get an emotional lift from doing it."
But the task ahead is a big one, despite the success of the charity's Million Trees campaign, which hopes to plant a million new trees in London by 2012. It has reached the 425,000-mark, says Mr Simmonds, but the figures mask a deeper problem.
"Every year we monitor the trees planted and lost. Last year there was a net gain but most of the trees lost were mature trees because they're sometimes perceived to create problems, whether pushing up pavements or subsidence issues, and we think that trees are getting a bit scapegoated."
The assembly's report said while some of the trees lost were just old and dying, 40% of those chopped were due to insurance claims, of which only 1% were justified.
This "risk-averse" culture adopted by local authorities is a key reason why larger trees are being lost, says Pauline Buchanan Black, director-general of the Trees Council.
"If someone complains there is a crack in the street, they say it has everything to do with the tree and nothing to do with the Victorian drains.
"The tree will come down because of the threat of a lawsuit against the council because even if they lose, it will cost a lot of money."
Even without evidence of a link, the tree comes down as a preventive measure, she says, and there is added pressure on trees "below street" from gas, electricity, water and cable television.
As these big landscape trees are lost, what is being planted in their place are so-called "lollipop trees", she says, which are less of a threat to properties but don't have the same benefits in terms of biodiversity, clean air and conveying a sense of well-being.
In 2001, Westminster Council paid out £1m after a long legal fight over subsidence caused by a single tree.
But the British Association of Insurers denies trees are ripped up at the demand of insurance companies without any evidence of damage.
Outside the cities, it is a more encouraging picture. The last figures available from the Forestry Commission show the size of the UK's woodland has more than doubled in the last 100 years, despite the loss of 15 million trees in the Great Storm of 1987, which has its 20th anniversary in three weeks.
But it is mankind, not nature, that is most responsible for the destruction of broad-leafed trees in the cities.
A former tree officer in the Bolton area says people who demanded the felling of trees blamed them for blocking the light, slippery leaves, noise and even for casting shadows that kept them awake at night. Some had merely seen television adverts featuring trees falling on houses, he says.
"Everyone loves trees but the term here is 'Not In My Back Yard'. They come under a lot of pressure from a lot of areas. A lot of people don't understand why trees are there."
Richard Reynolds, who founded a group of "guerrilla gardeners" that illegally cultivates neglected public spaces, says a fixation with property prices hampers community spirit.
"Trees are living creatures and sometimes in cities we forget that we have to live alongside them.
"People think more about the impact on them rather than other people. That tree might block your light but it's providing benefits to the community."
This love-hate relationship - tree-hugging or tree-mugging - is nothing new.
As William Blake recognised in a letter he wrote in 1799, "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way."
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