Why we must stop the chainsaws and learn to love our gnarled old trees

With mature trees under increasing threats from developers and disease, is it time to reassess our obsession with tree planting?

In a small Hackney cinema, a woman takes a roll call from a platform covered in leaves. Except this register is not for any human attendees:

“Fassett Square E8, horse chestnut, damage in wall, fell and grind;

Parkholme Road E8, replace sweet chestnut in front garden with a magnolia tree, fell;

Osbaldeston Road N16, London plane tree and small self-seeded sycamore sapling, fell and replant once the garden has been landscaped…”

The names correspond with trees due to be felled by the council and removed from Hackney’s streets. For the #NoticeThisTree campaign, the list doubles as a eulogy, a small act of pre-emptive remembrance, but it barely touches the 1,000 mature and semi-mature trees the borough has lost since 2020. While many raged over the death of the Sycamore Gap tree, on our own streets, we tend to meet tree loss with passivity.

The reason for this may be that when we think of ecological actions, we rarely think about nurturing our existing trees – we prefer the quick win of planting new ones.  

Tree planting is a good thing, with benefits including improved air quality and mental health, crime reduction, urban cooling and increased biodiversity. But despite politicians, school children and reams of celebrities pictured beside the hope of a new sapling, according to studies on tree mortality, up to 69 per cent of newly planted street trees die within their first year of planting. For Xanthe Mosley, former Chair of Lewisham’s Street Tree’s for Living (STfL): “The focus needs shifting.”

STfL is a voluntary organisation founded in 2012, which helps residents buy and plant street trees in collaboration with Lewisham Council. The group now oversees around 700 new trees every year and while Xanthe is proud of this figure, the real story is their 96 per cent tree survivability.

The secret? A small army of local residents committing to daily acts of environmental upkeep.

“It just takes one person in a single street to provide the starting momentum,” says Xanthe. “That may be by sponsoring a tree, putting in as little as £10, or committing to watering one specific plant every week. But that act of putting ‘skin in the game’ is really important to make us feel responsibility for our streets. From there, people set up WhatsApp groups, make friends with their neighbours and suddenly there’s a community element that carries everybody.”

For Xanthe, fostering daily connections with nature is a win-win for neighbourhoods, and something we need much more of if we are to meaningfully achieve a 10 per cent increase in London’s canopy cover by 2050. Over in Croydon, the same message can be heard from Anthony Mills, an Arboricultural Association Technician grade member and former site manager of Friends of Foxley Wood.

“Living on Foxley’s doorstep, I do feel a sense of responsibility and ownership for the wood,” says Mills. “There’s this deep sense of its traditions and place in history, and I suppose it’s that identification with a locality that is the key to involvement. People need to feel the trees are part of them – part of their history – and not many of us have that feeling anymore. But it’s that, really, which motivates me. It’s become a complete part of my life and my own history.”

Mother Beech, Pic: Anthony Mills

An RFS-certified arboriculturist, Anthony believes strongly in the ecological and social importance of ancient trees and, in Foxley Wood where he has worked for 31 years, there is no better example of this than 280-year-oldMother Beech“. Mother Beech sits on the lower path in the woodland and can be recognised by her smooth bark, shiny oval leaves and the large number of branches reaching out from a single point. At 23 metres tall, the tree was cut in its youth to encourage growth, and managed traditionally so it is now a prime example of a “lapsed pollard”.

Unfortunately, time-honoured examples like Mother Beech are likely to become a rarity. Lack of watering, poor maintenance and insurance bureaucracy mean fewer of our trees are reaching maturity, and the situation is worsened by additional strains including the climate crisis, economic cuts and the almost vertical rise in tree diseases since the 1950s.

These are stresses not even Mother Beech has been able to completely escape, with her rear trunk bearing the signs of two fungal species that have taken hold where a branch was cut away. For these reasons, Anthony says one of the best things people can do to help veteran trees, is to learn about the ones closest to them and how to identify the signs of common pests and disease.

In a glance back at Covid-rituals, this involves notifying the local council or Forest Research, if you spot any changes, and the quarantining of affected trees. Similarly, in the way we are advised to wash our hands, cleaning shoes between visits to nature sites can also help prevent diseases from spreading.

Despite the odds, Mother Beech has refused to go quietly, and a large area of new growth “reaction wood” has been generated to biomechanically strengthen the area of decay. In a nod to our own ability to repair and self-regulate, her story reminds us that given care, rest and the opportunity to reflect, we can all tend to our wounds in the same way.

Damage and regrowth on Mother Beech, Pic: Anthony Mills

In Hackney, this lesson of healing and regrowth is shared by another veteran tree. On the south side of Clissold Park, not far from Stoke Newington Church Street, a sprawling horse chestnut called “The Kraken”, stretches branches low and wide to support a colossal frame. On one side, an indentation in the bark allows you to place your hand deep into the heartwood and because of its low boughs, children clamber up and swing from its arms.

For Peter Buckingham, a member of the Clissold Park Users Group (CPUG), it’s a tree he couldn’t do without – when he was struggling with his place in the world, the old horse chestnut came to his aid.

“I was wrestling with my own development when my life coach suggested I take my questions to a tree,” says Peter. “At the time, I thought this was a very bizarre request and, if I’m being honest, I felt embarrassed, really. But I decided to trust the process and I went into the local park. I was immediately drawn to the horse chestnut, and strangely, when I sat down, I experienced this sense of clarity. It was like something was speaking to me.

“After, my coach asked about the experience and whether I had asked permission from the tree to enter its space. It was another surprising question, but I began to think about trees not as something other, but as something equal, and it stayed with me and my involvement with the #NoticeThisTree campaign. Something about that tree offered me solace and it helped unravel my own belief systems to make a positive change.”

The Kraken is not the only tree that speaks to the social significance of our urban canopies, in Tower Hamlets, a 200-300-year-old Black Poplar tree named “Old Harold” also captures this sentiment.

Crooked, gnarled and pairing fissured bark with heart-shaped leaves, Old Harold sits in the middle of Meath Gardens, where he is the last remaining of the park’s ancient black poplar trees. Black poplars are some of Britain’s most endangered native species with just 7,000 individuals remaining. They are also one of our richest in terms of biodiversity. The trees provide homes to over 100 specialist insects, their early catkins provide nectar to birds and bees, and because of their extensive root systems, they are heroes of carbon sequestering.

Old Harold, Pic: Friends of Meath Gardens

In the 2010s, however, Meath Garden’s veteran black poplars were dying prematurely. Over-management and drastic pollarding were becoming a death sentence for the ancient trees, until just Old Harold remained standing. On the day Harold was also due to be cut, one resident decided to stand tough. She demanded to speak to the parks officer to close the disconnect between economics, environment and local community, and finally, the chainsaws stopped.

Shortly after this dialogue, the Friends of Meath Garden’s (FoMG) was formed. Since then, locals have shared expertise, rallied enthusiasm and remained closely involved in Old Harold’s era of gentle retiring. For Joanna Milewska, a landscape architect and one of the founding members of FoMG, Harold’s rescue brought the community together and the tree means they’ve maintained a heart-pin of local heritage.

“The park stands on the site of the 19th-century Victoria Park Cemetery and, as you can imagine, it was once incredibly sad and polluted,” says Joanna. “But now you see kids running around, climbing on everything, learning about the age and stories behind the trees. Everyone here has memories of the park and now the children are part of that cycle. It’s not a big space but it has so many stories and it’s so important we have these old trees to share our histories.”

A fallen Black Poplar in Meath Gardens, Pic: Kate Balding

Joanna emphasises that to protect and improve your existing environments, it’s essential to develop a positive relationship with your council and to organise resident groups professionally. In Meath Gardens, they channelled their anger into collaboration and, in Joanna’s view, this shift changed everything.

“In our case, at the beginning, the council were suspicious or worried about our intentions,” she says. “They were also worried about the financial implications of our requests, but we raised our own money and over the years they’ve seen how committed we are to the project.

“We now have a really good relationship of mutual respect. We know they are constrained by budgets, so we bring in resources and, in return, they help us get projects through. That’s how we got our ‘Green Flag’ [an international benchmark for publicly accessible green spaces]. So building that partnership over time and realising you are on the same side is really very crucial.”

It’s a message that everyone has a part to play in protecting our existing environments, whether that’s getting knee-deep in soil, organising WhatsApp groups, translating bureaucracy, grabbing a watering can or garnering wider support.

Whatever your role or environmental journey may be, the resounding takeaway remains: shift your gaze from one-off good deeds to daily practices of connection. Through these acts of care, we can prevent more trees from being added to our ecological eulogies and social record books.

There is still time – touch wood.

Want to learn more about local responses to the climate crisis? See the rest of the Climate Refresh series here.

Leave a Reply