Trees in towns under threat

October 2011

Horse chestnut near the city walls, York

While I was in the middle of writing this page – prompted by the case of the beech tree at Irton – that tree was felled. A senseless hacking down of a perfectly healthy tree.

Further reading suggests that many street trees and city trees in other areas of the UK are being felled. The fate of the Irton tree should be a warning to us not to take our street trees and city trees for granted.

When our Victorian and early-20th century ancestors created tree-lined streets and planted trees in city centre locations they probably had beautiful visions of the public good, and didn’t realise that in the 21st century we’d be so worried about risk and litigation, and might fell their mighty trees at the mere hint of a threat. Clearly trees don’t live forever, and if they’re diseased and in imminent danger of collapse then they have to be felled. But much of the felling is of healthy trees.

The photos on this page are of various handsome trees in York and its suburbs that I hope will be safe from the chop.


Museum Gardens tree

Established tree in the Museum Gardens, by the abbey walls

I’ve been moaning on for years about the number of mutilated trees on our streets. The trees in the city centre in York seem safe – like this chunky-trunked example in the Museum Gardens – but many just outside the city centre are horribly hacked about. I was going to produce a page on this months/years ago, but the photos were just too ugly. Might eventually get around to it.

Anyway, it seems we’re lucky, here in York, that some of our trees are merely mutilated, as across the nation there’s a fair bit of tree-felling going on, with trees planted enthusiastically by previous generations going through a council’s shredder – in, for example Colchester, Darwen, London, Bristol, Crouch End, Sittingbourne – and Scarborough (see below).


Street-side chestnut tree, York

Massive horse chestnut tree, Clifton, York

I’m detecting a strangely ambivalent approach to trees. There’s a lot of self-congratulatory stuff from local authorities and the like about how many trees they’re planting, but it seems they need to, to compensate for all the felling. On the one hand, NYCC promoted on their website ‘Verges and veteran trees‘: ‘an old oak will be of interest if it takes three people to give it a hug’. On the other hand, the authorities in the Scarborough area seem intent on pushing any tree-huggers out of the way and are apparently involved in a large-scale felling of street trees. Perhaps to save future generations from the burden of recording veteran trees in the future, or indeed hugging any.

Horse chestnut

My internet searching also turned up an interesting recent case of another tree, not far away from Irton, in Scarborough: resident’s one-man stand has saved a 150-year-old tree. It appears that in this case (with no expensive legal battles already ongoing) all this gentleman had to do was to to stand in front of it and say ‘I don’t want you to chop this tree down’, and the local authority said ‘okay then, we’ll have a think about it’ and went off to think about it.

The spokesman quoted (from NYCC, again) said the felling was ‘in response to complaints that have been received about it.’ What complaints? Who are these tree-fearing people? Where’s the record of their hideous tree-related trauma? Are North Yorkshire County Council as rubbish at looking after trees as they seem to be?

I’m wondering where the boundary is between City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council in relation to street trees, as it appears any across the boundary in NYCC land need someone to climb up them and protect them from NYCC’s weird tree-felling whims.


View of Clifton Green

Trees on Clifton Green doing their best to screen out the traffic

In fairness – the trees we’ve inherited can be a burden to local authorities as well as an asset, and perhaps we don’t think about this enough. We just walk past them, walk under them, and don’t think about the continuing programme of maintenance involved in keeping them as part of the landscape.

They need regular inspection to check that they’re healthy and safe, and a local authority has to do this, and arrange pruning, thinning, crown reduction. As well as dealing with insurance claims, on occasions, from property owners. Not everyone accepts trees or welcomes their presence. Self interest means that some people would take a 21st century local authority to court for damage caused by a tree planted a century ago.

The moral of this story is …

View of Clifton Green

Young trees in York hoping they’re safe from North Yorkshire County Council’s chainsaws

Actually, I don’t like stories with morals. I just think it would be good if we all appreciated more the trees we walk under and around, and realised how much work it takes to maintain the old and established trees in our towns and villages, in an increasingly litigious age.

It might also be advisable for 21st century citizens to think very carefully about what trees are planted where, so they’ll have room to properly flourish. I hope the beechnuts gathered from the Irton tree will be planted in large open spaces only, where the descendants of the poor doomed thing can be left to grow for hundreds of years in peace, unfettered, and unfelled.

Though I’ve taken a vast number of photos of trees, in woodland settings and more urban ones, it’s only in this last couple of weeks that I’ve looked properly at some of the trees I’ve taken for granted, and wondered how they survived this long.

Healthy trees are being felled all over the country, for various odd reasons. We make a big deal about how many we plant – but a sapling rarely inspires anyone. Small ornamental trees are nice – rowans in particular are good for wildlife – but it’s the big beeches and horse chestnuts and the like that provoke admiration.

They’re a dying breed in our towns and villages – so appreciate while you can those big ambitious trees our ancestors planted – if you’re in North Yorkshire and they’re on your street, NYCC could be along to fell them any day soon.


Irton Tree Foundation website

Trees for cities website – tree FAQs

Arboricultural Association website – on trees damaging property

Trees that escape felling may be ‘crown thinned’, ‘reduced’ and otherwise interfered with for all kinds of weird reasons

(please read – it’s only three lines, and yet it says so much)

BBC website – Take cover by saving urban trees – many interesting comments underneath the article

The Research Agency of the Forestry Commission – has a comprehensive and enlightening Social Research Report: The social and cultural values, and governance, of street trees (PDF, 39 pages) published in 2010

Royal Borough of Kingston advice leaflet (PDF) – Living with Street Trees. A really good leaflet. Someone at North Yorkshire County Council should read it. They perhaps have their own leaflet on ‘How to kill street trees’.

There’s a similarly impressive leaflet (PDF) – Living with Trees – available on the Kirklees Council website – it’s even quite poetic in its pro-tree stance.

Department for Communities and Local Government – Trees in Towns II: A new survey of urban trees in England and their condition and management (Executive Summary) (PDF), published 2008.

North Yorkshire County Council want you to find veteran trees for them – possibly so they can turn them into firewood?

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