The Plane Tree – The Most Valued, Literally, European Tree

The Plane Tree would find little competition if we were to choose a tree for Europe – a tree which helps define a common heritage and culture for the majority of European citizens. It is also a tree whose current threatened circumstances are the result of the Second World War, a reminder in these days when we can so easily forget the circumstances of war, that it continues to affect our landscapes and therefore us.


Its presence in our urban environment allow Plane’s to be the most readily recognisable tree to the majority, this also means it is a tree that few celebrate – it is common. And indeed WWI soldiers would surely have associated the landscape of the Plane lined roads of Northern Europe with the awfulness of the war itself.


It remains a tree that evokes so many memories for so many Europeans. Its dominance as a ‘landscaping’ tree, THE landscaping tree, has meant it has been subject to homage from the greatest artists and musicians of Europe.


Vincent Van Gogh ‘The Large Plane Trees’

Including Handel’s Ombra Mai Fu – In praise of the shade of a Plane tree. Arguably one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.


The Plane tree is under huge threat from Plane Tree Canker (Ceratocystis fimbriata) and Massaria (Splonchonema platani) as well as a host of other problems. Plane Tree Canker it is assumed was introduced to Europe by American packing crates during the later stages of WWII.

The impact of the potential loss of these trees in so many important European sites – including the World Heritage Site; Canal du Midi, in France – has led to some rapid research towards protecting the Plane Tree.


Photo from SubtiTree

But also towards valuing these trees and trees as a whole. The cost of replacing the estimated 42000 Plane trees of the Canal du Midi is set at €200,000,000.00 (thus €4762 / per tree). But these trees are not to be replaced with Plane’s but a mix including Oaks and Hickory.

The value of a standing Urban Plane tree is considerably more than this. As described here in this speech by Christopher Neilan, author of the CAVAT tree valuation system: Award Ceremony of the European Tree of the Year 2014.

One hopes that the threat and subsequent costs for Europe’s Plane trees allows for much better discussion and policies using realistic finances, which can only help in illustrating just how dangerous the current flippant and often knee jerk attitude of policy makers towards decision making re trees as a whole is.

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Every tree I’ve climbed

I remember every tree I’ve climbed, given trees are my passion since I can remember (apparently at the age of eight I stated I wanted to become a forester), this is a lot of trees.

I am not a climbing arborist, and one would guess climbing arborists would be less attached to each tree due to the quantity they have to climb, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I cannot list each tree, but the smell, the feel and sometimes fear of each climbing experience is still a much more powerful memory than many holidays and certainly many important life milestones (although alcohol may have played a part here).

The first tree I truly climbed, to the top, was a young Sequoia (planted the year of my birth) and I remember distinctly the extraordinary sensation of holding on tight as it swayed in the breeze. Exhilarating yet scary. Certainly addictive. And set me on a course to become fascinated by trees, a fascination accelerated by the fact that we hardly know anything about them, particularly their extraordinary relationship with soil, other trees and of course their relationship with us. A relationship which we treat with dangerous flippancy.

This first tree, now a handsome specimen, I heard yesterday may be cut down as development is proposed on the brownfield site it occupies.

There may be genuine reasons, as there often is and thus I can’t get angry, but it made me very sad indeed.

In this last year it is looking very likely that more trees have been felled across the world than any other previous year.

It is clear that many politicians across the world have simply given up on any attempt towards a sustainable agenda. Trees and forests are either in the way or a resource to be abused. Both those who work with trees and those who have engaged with them in their own way are clearly losing the battle at the moment. So we desperately need every initiative possible in order to keep the message clear, that if we continue to keep felling as we are now it is quite possible we threaten the lives of our children and certainly their children.

Therefore I applaud any initiative that encourages children to climb trees and therefore set off in their life with a respect generally lacking in our generation. Education is great and necessary – but fun is better and leads to backdoor, self driven education. Wouldn’t it be great if tree climbing became as popular an after school (or even in school) sport as karate or even football? It is just as exhilarating probably more so. It isn’t easy either and there is a huge range of techniques and manoeuvres which would make an arbolmypics possible and a damn sight more watchable – although perhaps I am biased a wee bit.

I met a chap recently who is planning to do just this in an urban setting. I am amazed there are not more.



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A War on our Landscapes – but where the soldiers?

The fact is that England is a human landscape, it’s rural landscape is a cultural one. The British have a wonderful obsession with the natural world, and this obsession has been catered for by a huge choice of literature, TV shows and magazines which portray the English countryside as a leisure playground shared with a fragile, threatened wildlife. It is now not the farmers and foresters who are the wealthy elite of our rural scapes, but environmental and nature conservation NGOs, who have gained considerably from this obsession allowing their hierarchies the greatest salaries in land management and, if including volunteers, the largest workforces by far.

In the past couple of months I have been stomping about the landscape of South Devon and the range of landscape features, which define this landscape, cannot fail to impress. At closer inspection it doesn’t take much time to see how much degradation there is leading to a slow decline of many of these features; dry stone hedgerows, hedgerows, waterways and non woodland trees are all suffering from a lack of management, which has arguably already changed the landscape.

It is immeasurably sad that landscapes are threatened not just by development or industry seeking resources but by an almost complete lack of those capable of building and maintaining our most valuable landscape features because there is no money.

There is still plenty of examples of attempts to protect these features and farmers should be applauded for their efforts when they face so many other pressures and have little time.


It is not a case of too little too late, it is not a case of not caring or a belligerence against a strong environmental lobby. It is not a case of a lack of ‘good practice’ guidance, (although it is evident that much of this guidance is written, post dissemination by those who don’t know land industry).

It is because those actually earning from land management in the most iconic rural landscapes of England, including South Devon, are such a small % in regional economics that they are marked as negligible in official statistics!

There is simply hardly anyone actively working the land anymore, despite enormous pressures to deliver more from their land for less money.

Instead we see war. The badger cull a classic example. There is clearly a need to investigate, based on science and with all interests involved towards a potential solution. But one cannot help think that a ‘war’ is much more advantageous to government, NGOs and even the farming lobby as it avoids having to consider the much bigger issues which could affect the landscape more like fracking and windfarms, which are increasingly attractive to an impoverished agricultural community. Continue reading


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Terroir – why we need to understand it.

I remain convinced that the true French concept of ‘Terroir’ remains the answer to the majority of issues in regards the past, present and future of European land management.

The fact that Anglophones just don’t get it, indeed even second language English Europeans, is not just sad but potentially very damaging.

Combined with the increasing amount of frankly obtuse buzzwords, easily twistable, easily confused, it is easy to understand why we are left in a literary desert where the oasis’s are real to a few, but a mirage to the majority – to those that matter.

Terroir may be a French word and thus ‘unsuitable’ for adoption in the increasingly anti European mindset of many English speakers (it’d be interesting to see a word count of how many words of French derivative appear in the Daily Mail!). But it really does remain the very best word to cross all political boundaries and all chasms between those that work in all our landscapes that exists.

Terroir is, as best as I can interpret; Everything within a landscape that afects the soil (which is pretty much everything!) and thus the taste, (and taste, this is the really important bit, equals money). Thus all supplements, be it new development or pesticide usage, can or could, (explaining why the precautionary principle is so important to the French), affect the taste of a product produced there. Therefore terroir is the marriage of all sciences, social and earth, it is all the elements both natural and man made within a place and you.

If any commentator, academic, practitioner or politician suggests an alternative word or phrase they need to justify this – and they will never be able to do so successfully, (but my goodness they do try with extraordinary and very costly – to us as taxpayers – failure), So why bother?

Terroir is ‘Ecosystem Systems’ + ‘Sustainable Development’. It is the value of everything to value anything. Without everything that value is nothing. This includes monetary value and no non ‘commodity’ product exists that has such a high value than a terroir product. Let us be honest, (even the most deep green of ecologists included!) it is and has to be about money. How much is ‘Whisky’ worth to the Scot’s economy, how much ‘Champagne’ to the French? To continue to copy these products is completely stupid – you may win an award, but this is meaningless if you haven’t protected the landscape from which this product is born! You are simply good at plagiarising! Never something to be proud of and not in the case of terroir something that helps the biodiversity and both the natural elements and historic landscape features of the place that product was born.

Terroir negates ‘Sustainable Tourism’ & ‘Sustainable Intensive Agriculture’. Both of which are oxymorons, which is why many don’t understand the terms and certainly with good reason don’t trust them. Terroir however doesn’t attempt to hide behind language that can be easily labeled as greenwash, it doesn’t need to. Tourism and CAP fuelled agriculture is as strong in France as anywhere else, indeed more so. Terroir products enable a secondary economy, one which provides a much needed stable safety net against all agricultural policy making, whilst at the same time providing a tangible link to the landscape you visit. The reason why the food and drink you experience on holiday tastes better when you are there is because of terroir – the smells and intangible emotions of a place are in those products also, heightening your experience. And when purchasing these products you directly aid the protection of that place, the biodiversity, the cultural heritage etc., without any % paid into the considerable administration budgets of a nature conservation NGO.

Terroir equals good health & wellbeing as well as strengthening communities. The French, and other nationalities with terroir diets, enjoy the healthiest diets in the world. The precise reasons as to why this is so remain elusive, however it is clear that there is a correlation with terroir. Cheeses and meats with a wide range of alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks only require a basic carbohydrate addition (often terroir produce also) as the flavours are much more distinct. Communities with a shared terroir are habitually stronger as these products require a communal effort due to the effort required at harvest time as the value of many terroir products does not justify the cost of imported labour.

Terroir is Sustainable Soil Management. It really is all about the soil, which we still know little about yet abuse with abandon, contrary to what many commentators and lobbyists believe. In place of a soils directive and indeed stronger in protective measures to anything the directive could have installed, terroir is based on a fundamental to ensure the soil remains as it is to ensure the produce remains as it is. Thus any and all additions to the soil need to be scrutinised hard, from compost to pesticide, biochar to bullsh#t. The UK obsession that we need to improve our soils by supplements all the time is just wrong! We certainly need to improve our soils by tackling the ludicrous consolidation and counter productive drainage methods. But otherwise we can learn a lot by terroir by doing nothing at all.

Terroir is Traditional Knowledge. Quite why we do not have a suitable English translation for terroir is proof indeed as to how much we have lost traditional knowledge and skills. The UK and elsewhere certainly produced a lot of great terroir products (and still do!), the extraordinary quantity of unique landscapes in such a small country allowed for an extraordinary range of produce, (and still can). Terroir is an appreciation of many processes which are slowly but surely being recognised by modern science. Our predecessors were not all stupid peasants carving out the landscape at the instruction of their liege – but had guessed and worked with the extraordinary interconnectedness of everything.

Terroir is not just a word and maybe we’ll never understand the true meaning as any French can. But in trying to do so we will find many solutions and indeed simply having one word where a thousand are used is incredibly beneficial in itself as it will aid ongoing discussion. But I believe there are too many, (both farming lobbyists, suppliers etc., and environmental NGOs and Quangos) who will fight hard against any doing even that!

In the meantime search some terroir produce out and enjoy, knowing that you are aiding the most sustainable and environmentally friendly method of land management in existence in Europe today.


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Ria Oak Woodland

The Ria’s of South Devon and Cornwall are unique. The conditions they cope with cannot possibly equate them with upland sessile Oak woodland, which they match in terms of indicator species found and percentages.


The Oaks face salt dumping on an extraordinary level, up to 200 kg per hectare per annum. On every spring tide the limbs themselves dip into the seawater of the ria’s, which are much less brackish than the majority of estuaries in Europe.


The Oaks themselves have a body language that defies the textbooks as they are. Natural grafting of roots aids these trees to create a leverage against their collapse. The basal area hangs below the tree adapting to the need to create a counterbalance to the often 90° rootplate.


These trees rarely hollow despite considerable age. The timber is of immense strength and value. Prized in past history as perfect for sculpting ship figureheads.


Nowadays, following failure, the trees become a vital part of a very special localised ecosystem.

But this is becoming increasingly frequent. These trees are under immense threat for the majority of their linear range along the coastline of the Ria’s.

In most places the trees are now only found in steep sloped areas due to a long term pressure to develop or gentrify areas where access to the water playground is easy. Soil creep is substantial, particularly given the immense rootplates. These trees rotate slowly, falling into the tidal zone and allowing Oaks upslope to take their position. But with increasing extreme weather the undermining of the trees by frequent storms sees also a dramatic increase in trees falling into the tidal zone – only set to worsen as climate change continues.

Worst of all is that there are few oaks to replace those falling into the tidal zone. The strip of woodland is decreasing in width and where the woodlands widen they are far too often planted up with ornamental specimens and in some places unsuitable ‘native woodland’ mixes of seriously dubious source.

These trees and woodland are of high cultural value. The history of these Ria estuaries is intertwined with these trees. The foreshore cannot be seen, it is shielded by the overhanging Oaks, smuggling was rife and in more modern times the area was ideal for concealing the embarkation of many D Day troops and vehicles.


As with so many tree, orchard and woodland situations in the UK the continuing centralisation of policy, both governmental and NGO, has forsaken the uniqueness of these situations lumping all into over riding guidance and sometimes increasing threats rather than reducing them. As when I spoke to one landowner, he cannot get any assistance; technical advice is “spurious and blinkered” suiting an NGO or Quango’s aims and objectives over and above the local landscape conditions. The site specific solutions can only follow on from community led action, and it is clear that communities in the UK are increasingly severely and deliberately restricted to do anything at all.

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Trees – we just don’t know, so why say that we do?

It’s not what we know about trees and forests, but what we don’t know that we should be selling to the public.

Take the debate over the Defynnog Yew Vs. Fortingall Yew.

If we start accepting that subterranean or ‘non stem’ influences are in play when determining the age, size – the importance of a tree, we start to run into real problems with regards all current classification. What has been ‘sold’ so far no longer applies. This means that the tallest, (to include the root system – which we know little about!), biggest, oldest trees in Britain, Europe and the World are suddenly in question. However is this not a good thing? Can we not turn this to our advantage? Would this not stimulate a discussion which can only lead to better research and better definitions of all aspects of a tree? At a time when research into trees and soils is so important yet sidelined by almost everything else.

We would also have to accept that many ‘tools’ in the arboricultural practitoners kitbag are useless, worse than useless – quite possibly seriously damaging the tree’s rhizosphere – frankly this could only be a good thing. The ‘air spade’ for example, blasting away what we can’t see, what we don’t understand or know even exists because the research hasn’t been done yet but which we do know, or some of us at least, is incredibly important to trees and their value to us. And don’t get me started on leaf blowers.

The playground for new research with regards trees should be mainly in the peri-urban and urban landscapes. We can take more risks with the soils. As England rapidly proceeds to a state where most of its soils can be considered ‘Technosols’, mainly due to a lack of publicity over the lack of knowledge, we have to stimulate a debate in order to avoid continued destruction of the unknown. That the easiest place to discover a new species known to science is not in the Amazon or in a deep sea trench but in a teaspoon of soil from anyone’s back garden – an axiom that we can further use to revitalise a tired and dreadfully faded lack of interest in Trees and Soils – this is the new horizon.

In my career, sometimes on a day to day basis, I see incredible things which need research – it cannot be a coincidence that time and time and time again trees adapt to the most incredible situations. But it is too much and too easy to ridicule – and so practitioners and tree ‘owners’ have to forget what they observe as though they had seen a ghost or UFO.

However that silence allows pure nonsense to pass through instead. Biochar, Biodiversity Offsetting, Lunar influences etc.,
Which can amazingly be swallowed up by many quite sensible people as though it were barley sugar.

Therefore if we don’t start to open the flood gates a little the flood will always, as at present, come over the top.

This video ‘Underground Market‘ is a clever little animation highlighting rhizosphere interactions. In reality you can speed this up by X 1,000,000,000 as well as an extra X 1,000,000,000 pretty pulsating fairy lights and still be far off from what is actually going on.

Celebrate that and we may start to get somewhere.

The last frontier is not the deep ocean or space – it is the rhizosphere! And it was the first frontier also. But some silly buggers forgot to note their observations down in favour of chasing one king or even one god instead.


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It’s less about planting trees, more about saving trees

It is shocking how little ‘news’ there is about the extraordinary amount of deforestation there is going on now, right now, across the globe.

Is it worse than ever before? we don’t know – but its likely. We have simply failed to date to educate, to legislate, towards protecting what we absolutely have to if we give even the slightest damn about our children.

It is quite clear then that many really don’t care about their children’s futures.

The greed to accumulate wealth before it all runs out almost seems like a competition, one that far too many participate in, despite the obvious conclusion that nothing can be won.

As politicians follow this gameplay like lovestruck fans following any old airbrushed talentless teenager who can pitch a high note if he swallows enough helium, we are stupid to believe that any amount of lobbying will achieve anything. They will pick any route they can in encouraging an invitation for a free holiday to an oligarch’s private island to slaver over this wealth.

Far too many ‘tree planting’ schemes tie in with this. A means to offset, to re-landscape the wild as though it were a Slough industrial estate, despite the clear lack of knowledge needed to fully value our forests and trees and the biodiversity and cultural heritage attached to them. Whatever the promises made, signatures gathered etc., are in truth meaningless – nothing has changed, indeed it is worse. On site protestors, even in countries like Australia, fight with the threat of arrest – indeed for many the threat of death looming.

Can we as European foresters and other tree professionals, who know that we can provide the answers, continue to ignore the importance of the role we can play in fighting against deforesters – who threaten us financially and socially?

We foresters and arbs based in Europe should be leading the battle, helping – not silently cheering – those who face our foes on the ground. And in doing so empower our industry to where it should be – at the top of real sustainable development.

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