ITF held its Annual Event in Sheffield on 23rd June. The location was chosen to allow ITF to show its support for community groups who have been so active in protecting their street trees in the city. The theme was ‘Justified and Ancient: the value of trees for cities’. In his opening remarks, Andy Egan, ITF Chief executive, highlighted ITF’s long history of supporting local people to protect, plant and care for trees across the world. Although much of ITF’s work is in African countries, deforestation is also a critical issue in the UK, which is one of the most treeless countries in Europe. Trees are just as important in towns and cities as they are in woods and forests and many of the reasons for this were explored during the conference.
The first speaker was Ted Green MBE, President of the Ancient Tree Forum, who joined the conference by video link. He emphasised the particular importance of preserving ancient trees because of their value for biodiversity and because they often have historical significance as markers of boundaries or as commemorative trees. He argued that, although many people see ancient trees as dangerous, in fact they do not pose any particular risk as long as they are well managed by councils and landowners.
Dr. Nicola Dempsey of the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield focused on the evidence for the value of trees for wellbeing. The research project Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature is based in Sheffield and has already shown how trees are associated with improvements in health and reductions in anti-social behavior. These effects are particularly marked in areas of social deprivation where people may not have easy access to green spaces further away. Therefore, while rural forests are important, many cannot access them easily, and therefore urban trees are so crucial. Trees are known to improve air quality, reduce temperatures and minimise the risk of flooding, but the mechanisms for the full range of benefits they bring are not easy to elucidate. Greater biodiversity and having a close connection with nature seem to be particularly valuable in promoting wellbeing.
Fran Halsall of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) and Councillor Alison Teal of the Green Party have both been actively involved in the campaign to protect Sheffield street trees in response to the council’s decision to fell thousands of healthy trees across the city. Fran has a communications role within STAG and is responsible for keeping people up to date with the campaign through their website.
Many trees have already been felled despite the protests. A further 17,500 are still at risk, although felling has currently been halted to allow time for a new strategy to be considered. As Fran pointed out, though, protesters do not feel confident that the council will consult fully on the issue and there has been a huge loss of trust.
Alison Teal was first elected to represent Nether Edge and Sharrow ward on Sheffield City Council in May 2016 and has recently been re-elected with a greatly increased vote, largely as a result of the tree campaign. Nether Edge is an area of the city with many mature trees that are under threat and local people are very passionate about protecting them. Alison has herself been arrested as a result of her peaceful protest to protect the trees. The case was dismissed. Alison feels that it would be very possible for the council to review their agreement with Amey, the contractor which is carrying out the felling, but does not feel optimistic that this will be done. This makes it all the more important that organisations such as ITF give their support to the campaign.
Ian Dalton works as a Tree Officer for Bromley Borough Council in London and has provided expert advice to the tree protesters in Sheffield. From his professional viewpoint he could see no justification for the removal of healthy trees on the scale planned in Sheffield. He said that it was understandable that councils had to cope with financial cuts, but that councils elsewhere had been able to manage this without losing their street trees. In contrast he described the situation in Bristol where plans are being made to double the tree canopy by 2050.
The last two speakers at the event highlighted some of the creative and educational work that is being done. Annette Taberner spoke of how Street Tree Art Sheffield (STARTS) was founded in response to the tree felling. They meet as a group to make drawings and paintings of trees as a form of ‘soft campaigning’ and to allow people to express their feelings about the loss of their trees.
Sue Pitt spoke about ITFs contribution to the Fruit-full Communities Project and commented on the benefits to the young people involved in planting orchard trees at 26 sites across the country. She introduced Melanie Sheldon who had been active in the project at YMCA North Staffordshire and who now works for the YMCA encouraging others to get involved in similar projects.
The event wound up with Oliver Mantell reading some tree-related poems. It was a wonderful way to end the event as poetry really helps us to make that deep connection with trees that will help to ensure their survival.