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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Chainsaw massacre
Man with chainsaw in London

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Two tree-planting campaigns are under way in UK cities, in an effort to reverse the "chainsaw massacre" of the past. It appears that everyone loves trees, so why are so many being lost?

The huge broad-leafed trees so loved by the Victorian planners have become part of the British urban landscape.

But campaigners believe this part of our heritage is under threat and they launched a counter-offensive on two fronts at the weekend.

Find seeds in the wild (see chart below)
Plant at home - old juice cartons are ideal because they decompose
Plant in ground in Nov 2008
Choose a site after consulting local tree warden

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The Tree Council began its seed gathering season, to encourage people to collect seeds in the wild to plant at home, ready to put in the ground as saplings next year. And a fun run in Leeds was hoping to raise the profile of a tree-planting charity, Trees for Cities.

This kind of work has been given added urgency after a recent report by the London Assembly which outlined what it called the "chainsaw massacre" - the loss of 40,000 full-grown trees in the capital in the last five years.

Although smaller ones are planted as replacements, this decline of the mature trees has been mirrored in other regional cities.

It's a great loss because these trees bring many benefits, says Trees for Cities chief executive Graham Simmonds.

London plane tree
Trees and humans live side by side
As well as their beauty, they improve air quality by trapping pollution, they slow down rainfall, reduce noise pollution, provide shade and encourage healthy lifestyles, he says. And studies in the US suggest they increase emotional well-being.

No-one would pretend the carbon absorption from planting a single tree is enough to affect climate change, he says, but the moderating effect of large-leafed trees can reduce energy consumption of nearby buildings.

"There's also symbolism about planting a tree because it shows to individuals they can do something to make their mark in some way because climate change can make people over-awed. Planting a tree will have some impact and people get an emotional lift from doing it."

But the task ahead is a big one, despite the success of the charity's Million Trees campaign, which hopes to plant a million new trees in London by 2012. It has reached the 425,000-mark, says Mr Simmonds, but the figures mask a deeper problem.

"Every year we monitor the trees planted and lost. Last year there was a net gain but most of the trees lost were mature trees because they're sometimes perceived to create problems, whether pushing up pavements or subsidence issues, and we think that trees are getting a bit scapegoated."

Legal threats

The assembly's report said while some of the trees lost were just old and dying, 40% of those chopped were due to insurance claims, of which only 1% were justified.

This "risk-averse" culture adopted by local authorities is a key reason why larger trees are being lost, says Pauline Buchanan Black, director-general of the Trees Council.

Size of UK's woodland doubled in last 100 years, to 2.85m hectares
That still only marks 11-12%, compared to 30% in other European countries
Peaked in Middle Ages but Industrial Revolution accelerated losses
Shortage of timber in World War I marked lowest point
Been building up woodland since, initially with non-native conifers
Lately more emphasis on oaks, birch, beech
"If someone complains there is a crack in the street, they say it has everything to do with the tree and nothing to do with the Victorian drains.

"The tree will come down because of the threat of a lawsuit against the council because even if they lose, it will cost a lot of money."

Even without evidence of a link, the tree comes down as a preventive measure, she says, and there is added pressure on trees "below street" from gas, electricity, water and cable television.

As these big landscape trees are lost, what is being planted in their place are so-called "lollipop trees", she says, which are less of a threat to properties but don't have the same benefits in terms of biodiversity, clean air and conveying a sense of well-being.

Changing attitudes

In 2001, Westminster Council paid out 1m after a long legal fight over subsidence caused by a single tree.

But the British Association of Insurers denies trees are ripped up at the demand of insurance companies without any evidence of damage.

Children plant a tree
Trees for Cities encourages young people to get involved
Outside the cities, it is a more encouraging picture. The last figures available from the Forestry Commission show the size of the UK's woodland has more than doubled in the last 100 years, despite the loss of 15 million trees in the Great Storm of 1987, which has its 20th anniversary in three weeks.

But it is mankind, not nature, that is most responsible for the destruction of broad-leafed trees in the cities.

A former tree officer in the Bolton area says people who demanded the felling of trees blamed them for blocking the light, slippery leaves, noise and even for casting shadows that kept them awake at night. Some had merely seen television adverts featuring trees falling on houses, he says.

"Everyone loves trees but the term here is 'Not In My Back Yard'. They come under a lot of pressure from a lot of areas. A lot of people don't understand why trees are there."

That tree might block your light but it's providing benefits to the community
Richard Reynolds
Guerrilla gardener
Richard Reynolds, who founded a group of "guerrilla gardeners" that illegally cultivates neglected public spaces, says a fixation with property prices hampers community spirit.

"Trees are living creatures and sometimes in cities we forget that we have to live alongside them.

"People think more about the impact on them rather than other people. That tree might block your light but it's providing benefits to the community."

This love-hate relationship - tree-hugging or tree-mugging - is nothing new.

As William Blake recognised in a letter he wrote in 1799, "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way."

A selection of your comments appears below.

I read that trees on a road can add 10% to 15% to house values. Take a look at roads where you live. Compare how you rate an area with trees versus an area without. Trees say nice area. Plant one today.
Pete Forest, Newbury

We would have many more trees if councils took greater care in the maintenance and upkeep of our hedgerows. The present policy of giving contracts to the cheapest person with a rotary slashing tool on tractors that indiscriminately hack at the hedgerows, means any trees growing through our hedges get hacked down or debarked, causing the death of the tree. Tuition for the operatives and monitoring by landowners adjoining the hedges would help.
Andrew March, Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales

Read the report called 'Chainsaw Massacre'. It's a work of fiction. The statistics do not add up. It actually says that more trees are felled because of health and safety reasons than as a result of insurance claims, therefore the beating insurers seem to be getting over it is a bit unfounded. It would seem that local authorities need to develop a more robust method of dealing with health and safety issues and stop blaming insurers for the need to fell trees. Maybe it's time to stop tree huggers making decisions about trees. Tree managers need to have a clear perspective about what they actually do. Protect trees by all means, plant them in the right places and SERVE THE PUBLIC.

My local authority Ealing, has pollarded or ripped out hundreds of trees on the slightest pretext all in an effort to avoid possible claims. Right outside my house I now have a 50' totem pole with a handful of leaves at the top. Some trees are replaced with little saplings which are a joke. It's totally changed the environment. Pretty much like the local recycling scams certain private contractors and consultant's are making a fortune out of the Council tax payers.
Steve, London

We all love tree lined streets. However, if the trees are not managed properly and are planted in narrow pavements were they have little space to grow properly, the tree roots are bound to cause damage to pavements and garden walls. More so as the trees grow above a certain suitable size for the location. The pavements along the road where I live are constantly needing repair due to protruding tree roots. The Lime trees in my road are, in many places, well over twice the height of the houses with roots, undoubtedly extending under the foundations of the houses. The damaged pavements make it difficult for senior citizens and other individuals to walk safely. In recent years several elderly citizens have tripped over or slipped on pavements covered with wet leaves.
Angelo, London

Since moving to my current home, I have seen plenty of trees cut down along my road, with a few replaced by small trees with their stakes tied to them. I found a story about trees being cut down in a park I used to visit as a child on the Waltham Forest Guardian website. There have been 9 trees cut down in Sidmouth Park, Leyton. The reason? The council say drug dealers were using them as cover. When I get home, I'm going to look for a seed or two to plant from the wood at the end of my road.
Darron Mould, London, England

I have a beautiful tree in my garden, 70 years old according to a neighbour who has lived in the street all her life. However the man who has moved in next door hates it and wants it down. I had it trimmed by qualified tree surgeons but he climbed over while I was away and hacked more branches off. The police warned him but he still threatens to poison it. The tree has been on this planet longer than both of us, why can't he appreciate its use and beauty?
FG, Chingford

I am lucky enough to live in a tree conservation area very near the city centre and therefore have a fabulous array of mature native trees to clean the air and generally lift the spirits. A bit messy in the autumn but so what! They are so beautiful and the leaves make great compost. We also have a pair of Barn Owls and a pair of Perigrine Falcons nesting in the area. Fantastic!
Angela P, Nottingham

As someone working in the Insurance Industry specialising in damage done by Trees I can assure you that I expect a very high level of technical evidence before I would propose the removal of a tree. Removing a tree is often seen as a quick fix but whilst trees can cause severe damage they are often just a scapegoat. We need to put more value in our trees and insurers and solicitors need more training in this field.
Chris P, Sittingbourne

We had thousands of trees in a railway cutting by the station. Tesco came along and, despite 93% of residents not wanting them build a store, cut them all down, poured concrete over the area and build a tunnel - which later collapsed.
Ian, Gerrards Cross, Bucks

Again we see that what a human wants take precedence over what a human needs. Trees keep the land in good condition, provide homes for many other living things and many of the provide food. So they occasionally block the light to our artificial homes and damage our artificial pipe work. It is in our interest to work with nature rather than destroy it. We need legal protection for trees including those on private land. To kill a tree without the correct permission should result in a very hefty fine (say the cost of planting a thousand trees and the community service time to do the planting yourself).
Chris (treehugger) Thomas, Weston super Mare

I used to live in the East End of London, and although there were a couple of parks, most of the trees I walked past on the way to school were chopped down, which I feel is a great shame. I never found out the reason they had to go. Now I live near Wolverhampton, and the street I walked down has the roots of trees growing up and making the pavement uneven. Although I don't mind this, I know that for people with pushchairs or other encumbrances, these roots will cause a problem. However, I have seen walls on the same street built around the trees to ensure they remain. I'd rather have the nuisance of the pavement being re-laid around the trees than the loss of the only beautiful this in an otherwise grey landscape.
Heather, Willenhall

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