Just How Old are These French Mountain Beech Trees?

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Why we all need to talk about Sheffield’s trees.

There is an increasing amount of prominent and professional ‘Tree people’ following the Sheffield tree campaign and I would keenly advise everyone and anyone in the industry or on the periphery, in the UK or abroad, to do so also . The facebook page for Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG) has become a fascinating forum with many recognisable names popping up.

Many including myself often discuss the need for those in the Arb’ and Forestry industries to be communicating more. But what is the point if we are subject to a deliberate campaign to ignore all the work done, all the guidance and indeed even the legal framework under which we work?

This is why the Sheffield tree situation is so important to those outside of Sheffield and even outside the UK. It is not so much the trees themselves, indeed a significant proportion of the trees in Sheffield clearly needed attention and some felling was / is inevitable, but the manner it has been handled – particularly recently following an apparent backtrack in order to fulfill consultation requirements, which had been ignored for far too long.

The few statements being made public read like a compiled list of ‘tree myths’ in the urban landscape. Including the fantastic, if it wasn’t so sad, excuse to fell because ‘that tree will become dangerous when it dies?!?’ However these few random statements (and credit must be given to the council staff who have actually joined in on facebook threads), hide a deeply worrying procedure, which may or may not be sinister (again not the point), where a tree panel has been set up, meeting at least once already but which neither the members or the minutes are disclosed.

We can live with trees in built environment and we must. Innovative engineering combined with the traditional has allowed us to successfully live with trees in the most concrete of landscapes to the benefit of us all – not least the industry who depend on this for its very future! To be sidelined solely to the rural landscape is to accept failure – when we should be at the very forefront of sustainable development.

Arboriculture and Forestry are industries which join many, if not all, industries in being dangerously usurped by a system where media are politically obsessed. To speak to those who actually know what they are talking about means that these people have to expose themselves to the trolls, which now worringly and disgracefully includes the politicians themselves.

What is happening in Sheffield is a disgrace. This is not regressive but a whole new vision of how we may have to work in the future. The only positive being that this allows a direct link between the industry and the communities themselves and it is refreshing that local people are hunting the web and further for as much information as possible in regards their trees.

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Hopka – A Forester’s Fare

The Ivano Frankovsk region of the Ukraine (Eastern Carparthians), is well forested and has for centuries bred foresters. These foresters have had to move around the whole of Europe and further due to falling wages, forced down by ever decreasing amounts paid per tree felled. Those that stay have to work harder than we in the west could possibly imagine.

For a region that has such a rich forestry heritage, arguably one of the richest in Europe, it is no surprise that there exists a range of traditions heavily linked to the forest. Including many culinary dishes based on food foraged from the forest (or to use that awful buzz term ‘Non Timber Products’).

And there is one dish that is not made from forest foods – but is foresters food. The cooking of which should take place in the forest to gain the right taste and clearly ‘invented’ to provide the huge calorie intake needed by a forestry practitioner.

Hopka is a potato dish, which despite initial reservations, (as always when faced with unusual ‘traditional regional food’ – so often it is not well known for a good reason), I can’t recommend highly enough. It is a social meal, similar to fondue or raclette – designed to be eaten around the embers of a fire in the forest.

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OK – we copped out of eating it in the forest (this first time).

The potato mash is prepared as a dough, just perfect for soaking in a creamy, cheesy, onion sauce (or indeed any favourite sauce you may have), and is scooped out of the cast iron hopka pan by hand, shaped and dipped.

The preparation and recipe is as follows:

Mash a large amount of potato’s in a cast iron pan (No milk or butter).

Light a decent fire using spruce or pine. Wait until enough embers to level out and place the pan on. Spread half a cup of plain flour over top of mash and place on embers.

Wait 5 minutes. Then pound with freashly de-barked hardwood club.

Add more flour and repeat process 3 times.

Next add 3 – 4 eggs and add lard or infused vegetable oil, pound in and then add more flour.

Rest on embers for further 5minutes or so – then final pounding until doughy.

The smoke from the conifer embers enters into the mash, providing a subtle but distinct and unusual taste.

Thanks to Vasile & Sergei.

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To remove street trees is to remove a landscape.

Mature street trees increase the surface area of the immeadiate surroundings by several square kilometres, creating a larger landscape in a smaller place. To remove these trees removes the landscape leaving the street a small element in a much larger urban landscape. This leads to a sense of displacement for local communities.

Mature street trees are becoming increasingly rare. The majority of new street trees will never reach maturity. This is largely due to mechanisation (digging the tree pit by excavator often leads to soil smearing, the more clay, the worse the smear), combined with the many myths as to what a tree requires upon planting. Far too many trees are over fertilised and over watered, causing a slow death as the roots cannot expand out of a soil smeared hole, made worse by the huge quantity of urine and other pollutants which build up as they cannot disperse through the impermeable smear.

Tree roots need oxygen and in seeking out this oxygen quickly discover the loose material, backfill, around our drains and other subsurface infrastructure, which they take advantage of, inadvertently causing damage and thus helping towards the demonisation of all trees. As does clay shrinkage and a host of other spurious excuses insurance companies and developers have at their disposal in order to avoid tree planting as a requirement. Providing pockets of loose material, vertidrains filled with pea gravel, can allow us to manipulate root growth. It is far from rocket science and hardly expensive. But rarely done.

When all trees face unprecedented threats from pests and diseases, vandalism and often, simply neglect, it is a wonder that any trees planted in the technosols of our urban and suburban landscapes ever make it at all. And certainly any council seeking to save on future infrastructure expenses by felling mature trees, rather than implementing any of the excellent techniques which allow the tree to remain without compromising infrastructure requirements, is certainly not going to bother too much about a long term management regime for any replacement trees!

So when councils and others speak of planting a replacement landscape to the one just removed from you, it is vital to question whether this will actually work? And the need for community tree groups and strategies becomes vital.

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It is not trees that help alleviate flooding – it is how we use the trees.

The recent flooding in Northern England, Scotland and Wales was heartbreaking to watch. I am sure that the last thing those affected need right now is to listen to the rhetoric of pointscoring commentators as to who’s to blame. Sadly trying to hold one’s tongue is difficult as increasingly spurious information is widely touted across social media.

The role of trees and forests in flood mitigation is highly complex. Simply planting lots of trees, (on the uplands, riparian zones and urban areas), does not help at all, without traditional land management and innovative engineering also.

I am in the South of France at the moment helping following a catastrophic flood, it is impossible not to draw comparisons between the two events, particularly when UK work (FC Forest and Water guidelines etc.,) is being used as exemplary examples to follow. This area has seen a massive increase in tree cover since the 1960’s. With almost 70% closed canopy forest outside of towns, where once scrubby maquis on the slopes and intensive horticultural production took place elsewhere, (principally flower growing for the perfume market). This ‘forest’, rich in wild boars and much other wildlife despite the many fences, did not help prevent the catastrophic flooding because of the soil.

Post farm abandonment the natural regeneration and planting did not take account of sub surface consolidation. Such consolidation can be found in ALL human influenced landscapes. Unless tree roots can penetrate this then a severe flooding event would actually be made worse. To try and attempt to encourage every tree root to do so is frankly impossible. What isn’t impossible are plantations with 3 degree drainage, new stone walling following contours, vertidrains and best of all: The dry stone hedgerow, planted with fruiting natives.

Here in Cote d’Azur the dry stone retaining terrace walls had been left unmanaged or replaced with concrete structures (or often cement pointed themselves), which failed dramatically when the rains fell. Whilst these were highly effective slow drainage structures previously, which helped dramatically.

It is a long process to start to repair the landscape features which aided, even longer to build new to compensate for the huge increase in population and resulting infrastructure. But this process can only be made more difficult by politics. To work it has to be community driven, as it was in the past so successfully. And with proper joined up thinking – not the PR tainted point scoring we see now which muddies the water as much as the flooding itself, it is possible to gain through this process with more, much needed, sustainable forestry and opportunities for renewable energy, whilst taking into account insurance and liability which so many commentators; political, academic or NGO rarely take any notice of.

But sadly, we do have to accept that we cannot and never should relax in the believe that we can completely hold back the waters and that any commentator preaching seemingly easy solutions such as ‘Rewilding’ are just a modern Canute with an ego to match.

I went to a meeting recently with only foresters, planners, engineers and the public. Solutions were proferred, budgets tabled and everyone left to get on with it. I can’t see this happening in the UK anymore, only selected ‘stakeholders’ whose only purpose is to continue to be funded as such – but hope I am wrong?

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Sheffield vs Aarhus

I have only visited Sheffield once when I was 19. It was in late autumn and I remember clearly walking the tree lined avenues with the crunching leaves beneath my feet and that wonderful smell of leaf litter, so evocative in a city.

Sheffield lost its claim to being the ‘greenest city in Europe’ based on tree to people ratio a while ago to Amsterdam. Such an enviable claim was surely worth pursuing and not many extra trees were needed to reclaim the crown. Instead, Sheffield has embarked on an unbelievable crusade against its trees. The images are truly shocking:

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Image from Rob McBride aka The Treehunter

Whatever the reasons for felling – one thing is apparent; that the consultation process was lacking, considerably.

The text of the Aarhus convention is far from ambiguous (and its not as though Sheffield City Council are unaware of the convention!):

‘Each Party shall make appropriate practical and/or other provisions for
the public to participate during the preparation of plans and programmes
relating to the environment, within a transparent and fair framework, having provided the necessary information to the public.’
Then there is the European Landscape Convention, ratified by the UK:
‘Acknowledging that the landscape is an important part of the quality of life for people everywhere: in urban areas and in the countryside, in degraded areas as well as in areas of high quality, in areas recognised as being of outstanding beauty as well as everyday areas;’
Have Sheffield Council decided to simply plough on with a hope that no-one notices? As the campaign against the tree felling increases this adds considerably more cost for everyone. Which given the current financial climate for many seems wholly unfair to Sheffield locals.

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Those trees that you are killing are much more extraordinary than you realise, than we all realise yet!

How many professions can boast that at the end of every day there are more questions than answers. Immensely frustrating it may be – but stimulating also.

Trees and the soil they live in are so immensely complex that in many regards the gloves are off in how we ‘guess’ at what is going on. Any scientist would be putting their careers on the line in suggesting that there is some intelligence going on. But surely we cannot keep ignoring that something special, something very special is going on that we just can’t yet explain.

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This Sessile Oak growing on the banks of the Dart River Ria, near Stoke Gabriel, has grown a foot below its basal area to support itself. The basal area and roots are a metre higher. A tree shouldn’t be able to do this, right?

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This ancient Hornbeam has self-coppiced, (something I have seen in other tree species including Alder and Sweet Chestnut), allowing itself a longevity we can only envy at.

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This ancient Beech has seemingly created a circle of offspring, which help protect it at an altitude of over 1300m. Its roots push back against the slope, unlike Oaks and Pines which anchor behind themselves against soil creep and Prunus species which fold their roots beneath them so they can ‘step’ down the slope.

The above are enigmas which appeal to me and I have many more – as will the majority of other tree professionals. We don’t know just how clever trees are, we accept that our forebears knew as much if not more than us and we are now restrained through the routes of ‘proper’ science – which we fully accept, but it is gutting to see it increasingly influenced by pesticide companies and egos. But the many strains of the profession, particularly the mycologists, are in absolute awe of our charge.

Is it any wonder that those who work with trees end up in a position where we have to struggle against the label of ‘treehugger’ so often used as an insult, whilst increasingly the mystery of our charge cannot help but make us think not twice, thrice but daily.

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