Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 18:00 UK

Dispute takes root over oak tree

by Rebecca Cafe
BBC Somerset

Lucombe tree in Crewkerne
The tree is a rare hybrid between a cork oak and a turkey oak

For 200 years, it has stood serenely at the heart of a small Somerset town.

But now the gnarled oak tree in Crewkerne has found itself at the centre of a row over whether it should be chopped down.

At one stage, 100 protesters gathered around the 82ft (25m) high tree to save it as contractors arrived to topple it.

Campaigners fear that while they may have won that battle, the oak remains still in peril.

But why is such a notable tree under threat?

Originally Crewkerne Town Council had the tree checked over as part of a planning application to build a new £1m leisure centre.

But, after inspecting the tree, which is a relatively rare hybrid of the coniferous Cork Oak and deciduous Turkey Oak, the council said it had rotten roots and was unsafe.

They hired contractors who planned to chop it down last Tuesday - prompting the human chain of about 100 campaigners who arrived to thwart them.

'Too convenient'

Mayor Mike Best said the council had no choice but to remove the tree.

He said: "I have grown up in Crewkerne so I know what this tree means to people but we have had to take the difficult decision to fell it."

But campaigner Ben Hartson said "it was all too convenient".

"They stand to gain from this, there's so much self interest. I just don't understand why, when we have offered our own money to pay for another opinion by an expert of their choice, they won't consider it.

"They can't chop this tree down on the basis of one person's opinion."

Children hanging banners on the tree
The tree is 25m (82ft) high

Jeanne Warner, the town clerk who was on the panel which voted to fell the tree, said: "There's lots of conspiracies around about it going to be chopped down but they haven't seen the plans and they don't know the history like I do and they're totally wrong. They've put two and two together and made five."

She said the problem was the tree's location as it is surrounded by public buildings and car parks.

"If it was on a nature reserve, we would put a fence around it and let it do its thing but it's not," she said.

"I'm very fond of the tree and personally very sad about the whole thing as it looks magnificent. It's a very difficult situation but I don't honestly see another option as we have a duty of care to the public."

'Picture of health'

Three local contractors have been approached to chop the tree. The first, who was actually awarded the contract, pulled out because he felt it was "morally wrong".

Another contractor, local arborist Bryn Ley, who is a chartered environmentalist and the only approved contractor in Somerset, has refused to fell the tree as he believes the roots could be treated and pruned back, which would make the tree "more than safe".

"The decay is not insurmountable. There are ways around it. The tree looks the picture of health. I don't have a problem with felling trees but in this case it is worth pulling out all the stops to save it."

Prince Charles

A fence has now been erected around the tree which the council claims is to warn people of the danger.

The campaigners are now pinning their hopes on Prince Charles. As patron of the Tree Registry, the group hope he can step in and save it by adding it to the register.

They also hope a crow which has been found nesting in the tree could delay the felling as, according to the Woodland Trust, you cannot fell a tree if a bird is found nesting there.

Mr Hartson said: "The amount of interest in this is amazing. It would be a huge loss and would be a sad day for local democracy if it is felled."

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