It was once believed that when a tree died, it was no longer of use. For decades, we have actively removed trees at the first signs of rot or fungal attack, felling them at the base and removing all evidence of their existence…
Our guest editor, Nick Gates, Naturalist, writes
Storm damaged trees are hastily sectioned for firewood or bio-fuel. Sometimes, we replace them with a new, younger version of themselves. It was thought that this in turn kept other trees healthy, and that the wider environment benefited as a result.
But nothing is further from the truth. By removing this deadwood, we are stripping out a most vital layer of the natural world. Because when a tree dies, it isn’t actually dead.
As a tree grows, its core begins to die. Have you ever looked at a majestic old oak, its core completely hollowed out, and wondered how on earth it was still producing green leaves and fresh shoots? The reason is that only the outer layers of the wood, just below the bark, are alive. They transport all the water and nutrients that a tree needs to survive. Simultaneously, under the soil, a massive network of fungi around its roots help the tree collect all of the vital nutrients and minerals it needs. As the tree grows, the wood core, the growth rings left behind and superseded from previous season, slowly dies.
Over time, this core wood is slowly broken down by fungi. In the very oldest trees, the core is lost completely. Perhaps the most famous of these wood-feeding specialists is one you may well have eaten, the Shiitake mushroom. The fungi in turn are eaten by many species, from bacteria to nematodes, insects to mammals, whilst the rotten wood supports many more. Therefore, this soft rotting deadwood actually hosts a complex living food web.
An oak tree supports over 350 different varieties of insect. But over half of these feed on dead parts of the oak tree. Bats rely on deadwood cavities to roost, whilst feeding on many species of night-flying beetle that feed solely on deadwood. Redstarts require hidden cavities to nest, whilst searching for bark beetles and moths that grew up in the deadwood. Everything from blue tits to woodpeckers and wood mice to tawny owls rely on deadwood for some part of their existence. By the time an old tree falls completely, upended from its rotting root network, the wood may be dead but the vast diversity of creatures it is feeding are very much alive.
When we strip out deadwood from a natural environment, often under an aesthetic tidiness premise, we aren’t just taking the wood away. We are slowly eroding the complex living food web that the deadwood feeds. The Bristol Downs has suffered from this for many years. We could have hedgehogs snaffling snails from deadwood retreats and spotted flycatchers nesting amongst the craggy cavities in gnarled out stumps. Animals just need food and shelter to thrive. By removing deadwood, we take away both. There are many ways of leaving deadwood that look aesthetic whilst appreciating the enormous ecosystem service it provides. Good signage can help explain this.
In a time of unprecedented ecological collapse, we must all do what we can to help the natural world. Leaving deadwood in situ is one of the easiest ways to do this. So please, next time you see a fallen tree, don’t look on it as an untidy addition to the landscape, but enjoy it as the next opportunity for nature to reclaim a part in our everyday lives.
As you are aware, we have been expressing our continuing concerns about the welfare of the trees growing at Stoke Lodge Park and Playing Fields for the best part of a year now.
At the moment, our particular concerns are threefold:
The potential for damage to trees caused by pedestrians being obliged to pass over their root zones and under their canopies since Cotham School erected its boundary fence last year.
The potential for damage being caused to the trees growing within the new fence being caused by the school’s grass mowing regime.
The potential for damage to trees caused by vehicles passing over their root zones and under their canopies.
To a large extend, our concerns about issue three may have been allayed by the school’s adoption of a new access point at the eastern end of the fields, but we will have to see how this develops.
As for the other two issues, we attach images showing how the very muddy and disturbed path running around the outside of the school’s fence is causing disruption to the root zones of a number of trees – these are not all the trees being affected by this.
These images show how the current mowing regime encroaches within the root zone of one of the Turkey oaks inside the fence.
Here is a video which shows the mowing issue more clearly.
In our view, something needs to be done about this before any damage being caused becomes irreversible.
Can you advise me what action the Council plans to take to protect these trees, please?
There are some 166 educational sites and 63 playing fields across the city. Together they cover over 560 hectares and form a significant proportion and an important part of the city’s open, green spaces.
Despite this, Bristol City Council no longer manages trees growing on many of these sites and their related playing fields. We are not certain, but we imagine that this situation has come about as a result of the decline in local authority control over state educational provision with the rise of independent Academies.
We issued a Freedom of Information request (FoI) to try to find out which sites remain under the control of the Council, but our request has been refused on the grounds that answering it would impose a significant burden on the council. Our more generic request at the end has also been refused on the same grounds.
The trees at Stoke Lodge Playing Fields
Recent events at Stoke Lodge and the playing fields there perhaps best illustrate our concerns and the potential threats to the many trees growing on land set aside for educational purposes.
The site was leased for 125 years to Cotham School in August 2011. Interestingly, the Council agreed to retain its responsibility for all the trees growing on the site. It also agreed to indemnify the school for any damage the school might cause to the trees and to insure against this risk.
Stoke Lodge Playing Fields are located to the west of the city in Stoke Bishop ward and cover some 8.7 hectares of open space. Historically they were part of the grade II listed lodge (now an adult learning centre) of the same name which covers about two more hectares and contains an arboretum of important trees (the survivors of a collection that formerly spread right across the historic lodge grounds).
Unlike most of the land around it, this part of Stoke Bishop is not in a Conservation Area. For some 70 years, the whole estate, which until recently had never been seen as a divided space, has been used by the local community and is designated an important open space. Nearly all the trees on the Stoke Lodge estate are subject to Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) which were placed on the trees in early 2012.
In the summer of 2018 Cotham School announced that it intended to erect a fence along the boundary of its leased land. They stated that they did not require prior planning permission to do so because they were exercising their statutory Permitted Development rights. After an initial dispute about whether the school could indeed use Permitted Development rights, in January 2019 work began to erect the fence.
It was at this point that the Bristol Tree Forum became involved after it became clear that the proposed route of the fence would pass through the root zones of a large number of important trees, many of which were the subject of a TPO.
There then followed a protracted period of back and forth representations while we and the local community fought to get the fence relocated to avoid damaging the trees. This was partly successful. Where it was not, we were able to insist that the methodology for erecting the fence where it still passed through tree roots was modified to minimise damage. Even so, it took the constant vigilance of the local community and BTF representatives to ensure that Cotham School did not ignore the conditions placed upon it.
Setting aside the issue of the siting of the fence, our primary argument has always been that TPO law requires a prior planning application to be made (and approved) before any work is undertaken that could cause damage to TPO trees. Initially, the Council rejected this argument, effectively stating the Permitted Development rights trump primary TPO legislation. It also argued that, anyway, it could not proactively prevent damage to TPO trees, but had to wait until the damage has been done, which is, frankly, absurd. We continued to challenge these interpretations and, eventually, the Council conceded our points, though only after the fencing had been completed.
Things then appeared to return to normal,except that the community was now largely confined the unfenced areas around the boundaries of the site. As a result, the trees around the boundary are being exposed to heavier traffic through their root zones. We are concerned that this may have a long-term, adverse impact on their health.
Then, in August of this year, and without any warning, contractors arrived to lay cable ducting across the site so that video surveillance equipment could be installed. Using a mini digger they immediately set about driving over and cutting through the root zone of a TPO Common Ash growing on the boundary of the site. Other non-TPO trees (some privately owned) were similarly damaged.
We lodged a complaint with the Council’s Planning department. As a result, enforcement proceedings were commenced and the school, whilst narrowly avoiding prosecution, was obliged to take remedial action to try to mitigate the damage caused to the tree. The council also felt obliged to remind the school of its obligations to TPO trees:
And this is a site where the trees are still under the ‘guardianship’ of the Council! What about those sites where the care is vested with the school?
Our concerns remain for the future health of those trees whose root areas had been invaded by the fence installation. We have also continued to express fears about other continuing threats to the trees arising as a result of other activities on the site. So far, our concerns have been ignored.
For example, continuing root compaction and branch damage is being caused to the Persian walnut growing by the gate close to the rear car park and to the trees growing beside the Parrys Lane entrance. This is the result of grass mowers and other service vehicles using these entrances to gain access to the site. We are told the access point has been moved to the Parrys Lane entrance, though that too involves vehicles passing over tree roots.
Historically, it looks like vehicles accessed the site from behind the Children’s Play Ground on the southwest of the site, so did not need to drive over any tree roots. The presence of the fence and lack of any gate there has now closed off that option.
The school’s contractors also continue to mow within the root zones of the two large Turkey oaks (BCC-77025 on the eastern end & BCC-77059 on the western end) that grow inside the playing fields fence.
However, the Council and the school decline to address these issues saying that they have made adequate arrangements to safeguard the trees.
STOP PRESS – 4th January 2020 – since writing this blog, Cotham School has felled a TPO protected Elder (plus five others) on the Eastern side of the playing fields and poisoned it with Glyphosate. We have informed Bristol Council Parks and Planning Departments and asked them to investigate. They advise:
“The felled Elder trees were not included within or protected by the TPO covering the adjacent Sycamore tree.
It is very unlikely that roots from the Elder trees will have grafted with the roots from the Sycamore tree. Also translocation of herbicide between grafted roots is very unlikely.*
We are not aware of any plans to fell the twin stemmed Oak beside the white shed at the eastern end of Stoke Lodge Playing fields.”
But, when we asked Parks if these works were done with their prior knowledge and agreement, or if the department had approved the application of Glyphosate to the tree roots, or if they had seen the School’s Aboricultural Management Scheme, they answered ‘No’.
It seems that the school had complied with their obligation to get consent from the Council, their Landlord, but that the Council’s Education Asset Management team had failed to consult Park’s specialist tree officers about the plans.
Cotham School has issued these FAQs – 33 to 38 in response to this issue.
The fate of other educational sites
In the meantime, we have no idea if or how other schools are managing the trees on their sites, or if the Council is consulted when they do.
Even though, in most cases, educational sites are still on Council-owned land, the Council only needs to be told if the trees have a TPO or are growing in one of the city’s 33 conservation zones (or, we assume, if the Council’s lease with the school keeps the management of the trees in the control of the Council – as was the case at Stoke Lodge).
Given that Bristol City Council does not normally issue TPOs for trees on its own land, arguing that it is a good landlord and will look after important trees appropriately, it is unlikely that trees that have been handed over on other educational sites will have been protected by a TPO. Perhaps the council should now review its policy where it no longer manages trees growing on educational sites in light of this history.
Certainly it seems that new tree planting need no longer involve the Council. For example we recently observed that several newly planted trees at Cotham School’s main site had died. It was only when we noted that the dead trees were missing from the Council’s tree stock data for the school that we learned that they were no longer responsible for the trees on the site. We have now been told by the school that the trees were planted as part of a recent development and that the failure of these dead trees will be ‘rectified’ soon. Meanwhile, it seems that these new trees are no longer selected, managed or mapped as part of the Council’s wider tree stock strategies and that the existing trees on the site are no longer the Council’s concern.
Presumably, similar arrangements are happening across the city with other educational sites being left to make their own, ad hoc arrangements to plant trees or not. Given that the One City Plan aims to double tree canopy cover over the next 25 years, it seems a great shame that this important land bank of possible new planting sites might have been excluded from helping to achieve Bristol’s plans.
We are also concerned that school governors (quite apart from lacking the necessary skills to manage the trees growing on their sites) may not yet have realised the full implications of the practical and strategic obligations that taking on such an important part of Bristol’s tree stock places upon them. As a result, they are likely to have to buy in (at our expense) ad hoc expertise, thereby possibly overlooking the wider strategic considerations that are needed when it comes to managing trees across the city.
This, coupled with the distinct possibility that well-meaning but unqualified Council officers may be making critical decisions about the welfare of trees on educational sites, makes for a very worrying situation.
We have now received an explanation, via a local Councillor, for why the trees on Redland Hill were felled – see our recent blog – Redland Hill street trees felled by the Council. Why?As we are anxious to update the record as soon as possible, we have decided to make it public. Here it is, received just yesterday:
“Contractors removed some of those trees along this strip in error. The contractor is planting replacements free of charge (hence the blue markers) [small posts painted blue, which we noticed had recently been inserted in a line along the wall – just visible in the image below].
The history I’m told goes as follows:
The tree officer selected and marked the specific trees to be removed with a green paint spot. The thinning out was necessary due to the lack of space on the narrow strip of verge. It is good arboricultural practice. It has been suggested this row used to be part of an old beech hedge, this isn’t the case because the trees removed were a mix of species, ash, sycamore and elder.
Unfortunately other trees, without the green spots and which were scheduled to remain, had previously been marked up with orange paint spots. It was made clear to the contractor’s manager when they met the Council’s tree officer on site which trees were to be removed and which should stay.
The contractor’s team leader who subsequently carried out the felling work had not been given the full information from the manager and felled all the trees except the large Beech on the corner. The felling was also done much quicker than expected which is why the Councillors weren’t notified in advance thus compounding the error.
[The Trees and Allotments Manager] has discussed this communication error with the contractors and they have agreed to replace the trees that were incorrectly felled (i.e. the orange spot ones). The new replacement trees will be much better suited to the location than the original species. The new trees are birch with a very narrow and upright form. This will be much more suited to the narrow planting location and should have potentially less conflict in the future with pedestrians with pushchairs and will be easier to maintain next to the highway. They will all be planted by the end of tomorrow.”
Here they are…just planted…and we are very pleased to see them.
We have asked the Council to comment. We await their response, though we see that they have already commented to BristolLive.
Councillor Clive Stevens (and ex-Chair of Bristol Tree Forum) commented: “Although conspiracy theories are more fun to read about, sometimes it is due to a good old fashioned cock-up. Lessons to be learned on communication with the public which I think was the main theme of the Tree Forum’s original blog is the need for more and better consultation. That applies to many things the Council does. If the Government decided to increase the duty to consult on tree works lets hope they provide some extra money to pay for someone to do it. And secondly, often the Council takes a while to respond and in this case probably because they wanted to finalise the solution first; its the same department dealing with Stoke Lodge and ex Wyevale Garden Centre situations and probably a hundred or so other active planning applications all with tight deadlines which take priority.”
As a precaution, we have asked the Council to take urgent steps to protect the last remaining beech tree on the boundary wall with a Tree Preservation Order. This is partly because of what has happened, but also because we have had to advise the Planning Department that someone on the site has dumped a large amount of builders rubble and other materials on the tree’s roots on the other side of the wall from the tree. Clearly this important tree (the last vestige of a historic hedge which probably predates both the wall and the buildings nearby) is still under threat and needs protection.
We are sad to have lost what was once a significant aspect of one of the approaches to the Downs, but are pleased to see the whole sorry saga resolved. We hope that lessons have been learned and look forward to watching the replacement birches grow and flourish.
Until a few weeks ago there was a lovely informal stand of trees along Redland Hill, which is a busy road that I walk up twice a day to get to the Downs.
Rush hour stationary traffic belches out pollution and the trees provided some respite. I have watched over the years as several of the old beech trees were removed. They were probably once part of a beech hedge that predates the existing buildings (and the wall): now only one is left. Instead, an informal collection of ash and other trees grew in their place. This was a great place to see Broomrape, a parasitic plant that grew at the base of some trees.
There was no consultation of any kind with the community. One day the trees were there, the next they were gone. Without any involvement from the Bristol Tree Forum, the local councillor or the local community, we can only guess why the trees were removed. Perhaps it was concerns about the nearby wall. A careful examination shows that there are no obvious cracks, even close to the one remaining beech tree. Was a proper engineer’s survey done? In days gone by a Bristol City Council Tree Officer defended a tree, similarly close to a garden wall, that the owners wanted to cut down, even obtaining an engineer’s report. Even if there were substantial damage to the wall, other options were possible, such as thinning out the trees (only some were marked with green paint) or laying them as a hedge as was recently done in Redland Green.
Of course the removal may be for a different reason. Maybe what the developers really wanted to do was to create views for their flats and successfully put pressure on the council? Perhaps the pavement will be widened? Or perhaps the area will be dug up for services. I don’t think the removal of trees was in the planning application.
At this time, with the threat of Ash die-back disease we should be looking to keep healthy ash trees in case by chance they turn out to be the ones that are resistant. Cutting down healthy ash trees is misguided.
The money that was spent cutting down these trees should have been used for planting new street trees, something that Bristol City Council says it has no funds to do. I’m guessing more money will now be spent to tarmac over the area where the trees once were.
Bristol City Council should have thought differently. For example, it should have enforced a root protection area for the last remaining beech tree. This was apparently not done and I guess we will see that last tree fail in the next ten years.
At present, Bristol City Council refuses to consult over tree felling decisions, despite requests from the Bristol Tree Forum for a decade. It is almost as though the council thinks there are no inhabitants in the urban forest and that they always know best. Unilateral decisions such as this show how important the government’s proposal is to require local authorities to properly consult before removing street trees.
Bristol has an ambitious plan to double its tree canopy by 2050. Yet all over Bristol, on an almost daily basis, tree canopy is being lost – for multiple reasons. Just in the local area, about half a dozen really large trees have gone and the canopy cover has decreased. We did manage to get one new street tree, in the middle of Redland roundabout but it took a four year battle and the help of our local MP to get it planted. Trees are lost very gradually in our bit of Bristol and are often not replaced. So the change in canopy is not obvious. Fisheries biologists have coined the term “shifting baselines”, where each generation sees only minor negative changes. But the effect over a long period is substantial.
As Professor Corinne Le Quere has said, “actions to tackle climate change have to penetrate all the decisions that we take in society”. We are hoping that we can get this point across to the decision makers in Bristol City Council.
The Bristol Tree Forum will now be campaigning for these trees to be replaced.
We are delighted to announce that the winner of the inaugural Bristol Tree Forum’s Tree of the Year competition is the Lucombe Oak, submitted by the community group We Love Stoke Lodge. The Lucombe Oak was a clear winner with 584 votes out of the 1,269 confirmed votes cast for the eleven entries.
We Love Stoke Lodge is an informal community group of local residents based around Stoke Lodge, a 26-acre park and recreational area in Stoke Bishop in the north-west of Bristol.
The group writes:
The Lucombe Oak is a cross between a Turkey Oak and a Cork Oak. It was first raised by an Exeter nurseryman, William Lucombe, in 1762. It is unusual in the fact that it keeps its leaves over winter. The story goes that William Lucombe was so attached to his special oak that he felled the original specimen to provide wood for his own coffin and kept the boards under his bed until he died. However, he lived an exceptionally long life, dying at the age of 102 years, by which time the planks had decayed in the Devon damp. To quote an article from Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, this showed ‘that Lucombe knew more about growing trees than preserving them’. On his death timber from one of his early propagations was used to make his coffin instead.
Notwithstanding the tree’s fascinating history, so many of our community hold treasured memories of this tree dating back over four generations. At a recent community picnic those in their nineties sat alongside primary school children of today talking about the best picnics they have had under our beloved tree and sharing tips on how to climb it wonderful branches. This tree is the meeting point for many sports and well-being groups. Its branches shade baby groups, yoga classes, families and friends from the sun (and the rain) every day – as it has done for hundreds of years ! This tree is a not just located in the centre of our community, it is part of it.
This giant London plane tree that dominates an area of Brislington’s Nightingale Valley is, together with the nearby pack-horse bridge, one of the features that help define this unexpected green haven. Its trunk was once an open hollow, tempting the mischievous to light fires within it so a few years ago a local action group walled it up. This has given rise to a legend that a witch is entombed within. Many generations of Brislingtonians have picnicked in its shade, swung across the brook from ropes attached to its boughs or caught tiddlers beneath it. It has a symbolic significance: It’s tall, it’s strong, it’s seen adversity, it endures.
We would like to thank all those who submitted a nominee. We were delighted to receive such a varied and eclectic range of wonderful and inspiring trees, both living and dead. An inspiration for next year’s competition.
Our congratulations to the winner and the runner-up and thank you to all those who voted.
These two terms are in common use, but they have specific meanings when it comes to their conservation. All ancient trees are veterans, but a tree may qualify as a veteran without being ancient. Most British trees increase in girth over their lifetimes by 2.5 cm a year. They grow faster when young, when in the open as opposed to woodland, and when in good soil rather than bad. They grow slower as they get older. Some species grow faster than average, such as Black Poplar, Plane, and Wellingtonia, and some more slowly, especially Limes and Hawthorns.
Trees are very good at vegetative reproduction, so that they are effectively eternal. Some create their own clumps, each tree being a clone. They do this by branches that arch down to the ground, root, and send up new vertical trees. The Tortworth Chestnut, which was regarded as ancient in King Johns reign, is a good example, but some of the limes on the Downs are doing this. Some trees send up new shoots from the base of the trunk which eventually replace the original tree. Many trees if cut to the ground, by storm or men, will promptly create new shoots, and this is the basis of coppicing which was a standard woodland management tool from at least Roman times. There is a Small-leaved Lime at Westonbirt Arboretum that now consists of a ring of clones about forty metres in diameter.
Ancient trees should be at least two hundred years old, and hence have a girth of more than five metres. I have measured 120 trees in Bristol with this girth, and there are many more in Ashton Court that I have not checked. They matter because they provide a range of habitats to a range of species. They are always hollow, often squat, having long since lost their upper branches, their hearts eaten out by fungi and beetles, full of nooks and crannies, and often clothed in lichens and ferns. They are most frequently Oaks, Sweet Chestnuts, Planes and Cedars.
Veteran trees are defined by their individuality. They will be mature, around 140/150 years old, about three metres in girth, mostly still standing tall. Fine, significant specimens of their species both in form and biodiversity. They are candidates to become Ancient, they may be starting to go hollow, and hence be of concern. They may need management to avoid their becoming top heavy, or developing a dangerous lean. They will stand out from other trees in their particular locality and may have planning protection as a consequence. They may also have special features of note, such as being multi-trunked.
Ancient or veteran tree: A tree which, because of its age, size and condition, is of exceptional biodiversity, cultural or heritage value. All ancient trees are veteran trees. Not all veteran trees are old enough to be ancient, but are old relative to other trees of the same species. Very few trees of any species reach the ancient life-stage.
Ancient Woodland. An area of woodland that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD. It includes ancient semi-natural woodland and plantations on ancient woodland sites.
Irreplaceable habitat: Habitats which would be technically very difficult (or take a very significant time) to restore, recreate or replace once destroyed, taking into account their
age, uniqueness, species diversity or rarity. They include…ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees….
Paragraph 175 (at page 51) of the framework states:
When determining planning applications, local planning authorities should apply the following principles:
c) development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy exists;
Paragraph 2.17.6 of DM17: Development Involving Existing Green Infrastructure – part of the Bristol Local Plan echoes this:
Due to their characteristics and value, Aged and Veteran trees are considered to be of relatively greater importance than other trees and even trees of a similar species. Aged trees, by definition, have developed characteristics associated with great age and often have particular landscape and townscape value. Veteran trees are considered to have particularly important nature conservation value. Both will often have significant visual amenity, and potentially historic and cultural importance. As such their loss or harm will not be permitted, and the design and layout of development will be expected to integrate them into development.
These guidelines apply whether the tree or woodland grows in a public or a private place.