Henry VIII was still on the throne when the shoots of a sweet chestnut first broke through the soil of Wrexham in what is now Acton Park. Copernicus was about to publish his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. The Ming dynasty ruled China. More than 480 years on, the tree stands 24 metres tall and on Wednesday was crowned as tree of the year in the annual Woodland Trust competition. Generations have scavenged its chestnuts, taken the sticks that have fallen for firewood and sheltered beneath its splendid branches. It is not merely part of the landscape; it is part of community life.
This year’s contest highlighted urban trees, particularly vulnerable to felling and disease. There is now a host of evidence on the benefits that trees bring, not only in forests but in cities too. They range from boosting mental health, and even immunity, to reducing noise and air pollution, helping to cool the air, and reducing runoff in heavy rains – increasingly important as global temperatures rise. Beyond those lies the sheer pleasure that people take in them. The instinctive bond people feel was highlighted by the outrage and grief that greeted the overnight felling of the Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall last month by unknown vandals. Though practically a sapling compared with Wrexham’s tree – it was planted a mere 130 years ago – it had attracted marriage proposals and scatterings of ashes, as well as starring in countless photographs. Though the stump is expected to regrow, few of us will see anything approaching its former might in our lifetimes.
This summer, Sheffield city council’s new Labour leader acknowledged that some residents would “never forgive” it for its draconian programme to fell thousands of street trees (many of them healthy), which saw elderly protesters being arrested in dawn raids. One of the nominees in this year’s awards was an elm which narrowly escaped that culling.
In Plymouth, the overnight felling of more than 100 trees helped to bring down the Tory council last year. Their Labour successors announced this week that they will plant almost double the number lost, from 16 species, in consultation with biodiversity specialists, with a new surface water drainage system in the surrounding play area irrigating the trees.
Such attention to detail is welcome. Planting is not a quick fix for past mistakes. Saplings cannot replace mature trees. Quite apart from the sentimental attachment that people feel towards older specimens, they are often more resilient. Large numbers of trees in cities worldwide are dying; it will take the commitment of residents as well as councils to ensure they are properly maintained. And it takes decades for urban trees to offset the carbon emissions required to grow, plant and maintain them. The Woodland Trust is right to campaign for the legal protection of ancient trees.
The landowner who planted the Sycamore Gap tree knew that he would never see its full glory. It was a gift to the future. Even as we add more trees, we must protect those left to us by past generations, for the sake of those to come.