Updated: Dec 19, 2019
It is a struggle to remember an event in British Horticulture so controversial as the recent tree felling has been across the City of Sheffield over the last year or so. I've spoken with a number of Sheffield residents over the last year and I'm yet to find anyone who is for the fell and replace strategy being implemented across the city. Most think it is the fault of the City Council for creating an opportunity for a lowest price mentality to bid management. It is after all far cheaper to fell established trees and replace with young trees, than it is to undertake, at times, complex works to manage trees appropriately across an area the size of a city. That does not make it the right thing to do of course and we must be clear here; much of what we are talking about is the removal of healthy trees, not the dead or dying trees that the council is insisting is the case. We are talking about the removal of healthy, established, mature trees, that with appropriate management, would go on living safely for many more years. We are talking about the systematic replacement of 17,500 trees (inc 5500 already removed) over a 20 year period. We are talking about unnecessary replacement.
Within the last two weeks we have seen violent classes and even arrests over this issue with highly charged scenes becoming more and more commonplace; and in my opinion totally understandably. Here is a link to a BBC article on recent arrests from the perspective of Sheffield's Police Chief Constable. Like so many of these situations, it contains complex arguments with the wants and needs of several parties at play, but at its core, it is simplicity itself. Put simply, is it the right thing to do?
How much do we value street and park trees in the UK? Is a remove and replace strategy of any value? I think as individuals, most people appreciate trees for their shelter from the wind, their shade in summer, their filtering of environmental pollutants, etc. Most of us are happy about the habitat they provide for wildlife and in most cases street trees (park trees really don't apply here) aren't damaging or presenting a risk to safety unless unmanaged.
So with us individually and arguably collectively pro street trees and understanding of their value, why aren't voices being listened to and why were the people of Sheffield not appropriately consulted about these planned measures? Cost. Like so many things nowadays, we are expected to forego our moral standpoint and accept less than ideal service because it came in at the right cost.
It is criminal to allow a strategy that destroys hundreds of years of growth and loyal service in favour of convenience and a price-point. Amey, who handle this contract are taking a great deal of the abuse over its management and one could argue that they should accept some responsibility, but ultimately the city council has both written the contract terms, awarded the contract and is responsible for its implementation. They are accountable to the electorate and their inability to effectively manage the situation and put it right is having a negative impact on the city that will take a couple of generations at least to recover from. Worse still some of the trees removed, other than being healthy and old, are significant horticulturally, like the 120 year old Chelsea Road Elm, which is one of only approximately 1000 healthy mature Elm trees left in the UK. At a time when we are bombarded with potential pest and disease risks to plants across the UK from further afield, surely we could at least protect our wonderful plants? Ironically, as if to react to the risk of harm to a beloved tree with a message to the council, a butterfly, the White-Letter Hairstreak has granted (at least) a temporary reprieve to this tree as it represents an important habitat for this equally endangered species. See article on Butterfly Conservation Website here.
Whatever your opinion, horticultural strategies for towns, cities and the country as a whole, should be devised with horticultural and cultural value as a priority, not an afterthought. What is happening in Sheffield is appalling and it is not too late to stop it - after-all, if they allow it to happen there, where next?