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‘Woodman, spare that tree!’

24 November 2017

Trees have a special place in our lives, says Joe Ware, but they are under threat. He considers why we should help them


Turning the soil: planting a cedar tree at Salisbury Cathedral, in 1937

Turning the soil: planting a cedar tree at Salisbury Cathedral, in 1937

IF THERE was any doubt that trees have a deep emotional resonance in Britain, the recent furore in Sheffield has surely put it to rest. Under the terms of a Private Finance Initiative between Sheffield City Council and the infrastructure-services company Amey, more than 6000 trees have been designated for felling, after being deemed a threat to the city’s pavements.

What began as a relatively mundane act of municipal maintenance has resulted in fierce local protests; a campaigner’s receiving a suspended jail sentence; the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, condemning the council’s plans as “bonkers”; and the Guardian columnist George Monbiot proclaiming that the incident showed “how state and corporate power subverts democracy”.

There were shades of the BBC comedy W1A when the TV presenter Vernon Kay recorded a social-media film from some woods near by, in which he called for the council to change course and save his namesake tree, the 150-year-old Vernon Oak.In the spiritual realm, trees have long enjoyed a special place. “For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers,” the German poet Herman Hesse observed. “I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. . . Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”


THIS year marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, which was signed by King Henry III, and issued in St Paul’s Cathedral, on 6 November 1217. A companion document of the Magna Carta, it restored people’s rights of access to royal forests to forage for food, graze animals, and collect firewood.

Unlike the Magna Carta, which dealt with the rights of the barons, the Charter of the Forest provided commoners with some genuine economic protection from an overbearing aristocracy. Only two original copies of the charter remain: they are owned by the cathedrals of Lincoln and Durham (News, 26 May).

To mark the anniversary, the Woodland Trust and more than 70 other organisations, including the Church of England, have launched the Charter for Trees, Woods and People. It is hoped that the initiative will halt the drastic decline of Britain’s woodlands and reverse the downward trends in planting rates, legal protections, and interest in arboreal careers, while addressing threats from infrastructure development, diseases, and climate change.

Earlier this month, the chief executive of the Woodland Trust, Beccy Speight, warned that England was “surely slipping unnoticed into a state of deforestation”: thousands of trees were being ripped out by developers, while planting rates had fallen to the lowest level in half a century. Only 13 per cent of the UK is covered by forest, which ranks a lowly 25th out of the EU’s 28 nations.


TREES have played a foundational part in the nation’s churches. Wood has been used for centuries to build, adorn, and equip churches around the country. Britain is home to the oldest wooden church in the world: St Andrew’s, Greensted-juxta-Ongar (or Greensted Church, as it is more commonly known).

By Acabashi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41239013History in wood: St Andrew’s, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, also known as Greensted Church

The church, which still holds weekly services, is believed to be the oldest wooden building in Europe, and its palisade oak walls are understood to date back to the ninth century. Proudly standing through more than 1200 years of history, its wooden structure was, in 1013, a temporary resting place for the body of St Edmund, England’s first patron saint. Some of the Dorset labourers known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs were given tenancies in the parish after being returned to England after their penal transportation to Australia: a punishment for laying the foundations of what became the trade-union movement in the 1830s.

British history is also etched into the wooden fabric of Salisbury Cathedral. When it was built, there were five steeply pitched roofs, three of which were demolished and reconstructed by the architect Francis Price, who was made surveyor of Salisbury Cathedral in 1734. The two surviving original roofs, which cover the building’s northern and southern chapels, have been found to have Arabic numerals — the modern numbering system we use today — inscribed into the oak trusses that support them. This is the first recorded use of Arabic numerals, rather than Roman, in England.

History is also to be found in the living trees on church grounds. In the courtyard of Lambeth Palace a sprawling fig tree stands, planted in 1556 by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole. The Ficus carica, also known as a White Marseilles, which still produces a sweet white fruit twice a year, now possesses an even greater significance, after Archbishop Welby brought a cutting from the tree as a gift to Pope Francis on his visit to the Vatican in 2014 (News, 20 June 2014). The Archbishop described the cutting as representing “the common heritage of our two Churches” and a “visible sign of our own and our Churches’ relationship growing and bearing fruit from the same source”.


CONSIDERING its location at the heart of Westminster, the Lambeth fig tree will have done more than its fair share of cleaning up the capital’s polluted air over the past 500 years. The part that trees play in cleaning the country’s increasingly toxic air and combating climate change by replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen, is one that the current C of E leadership is keen to embrace.

Through a new initiative, “Trees for Sacred Places”, the Conservation Foundation will deliver more than 300 trees to 53 sites in the dioceses of London, Rochester, Southwark, and Chelmsford. Churches without an obvious place to plant a tree — a reality more common among urban congregations — are being encouraged to offer the saplings to local schools or community gardens.

iSTOCKMessage: a “Save me” poster on a tree that is under threat of felling in Sharrow, a residential area of Sheffield, on 3 January — the council has spent £250,000 prosecuting those who protested against the felling

The project is backed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who wants London to become one of the greenest cities in the world. Parishes are being offered a choice of 12 tree varieties: hawthorn, bird cherry, wild cherry, whitebeam, crab apple, rowan, lime, tulip tree, Italian cypress, black mulberry, strawberry tree, and yew. Of these, rowan, wild cherry, and mulberry have proved most popular.

The species have been chosen because they will not only improve air quality but provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators, something much needed with bee numbers in decline across Western Europe. A recent study suggested that 75 per cent of flying insects had disappeared in Germany over the last 25 years.

David Shreeve, the environment adviser to the Archbishop’s Council and director of the Conservation Foundation, reports that the delivery of the trees has taken into account not only National Tree Week (25 November to 3 December), but also Interfaith Week (12-19 November).

“The tree planting is a great opportunity for churches to invite other local faith groups and enjoy their new community trees,” he explains. “What better way to celebrate bringing life to our planet than planting a tree? As they will be planted close to Advent, it will act as a fitting reminder of new life. Bringing that into the life of the Church is a great thing do.”

While people may associate churches with “a lush churchyard in the countryside”, he reports that many in urban areas are experiencing the effects of pollution.

“These trees won’t be the big oaks or ashes found elsewhere, but they will be suitable for London, and will help creepy-crawlies as well as improve air quality.”

The scheme has been backed by the most recent Bishop of London, Lord Chartres, who argued that “practising love of our neighbours means looking after the natural environment that we share”.


IT IS a theology that has also under pinned criticism of the Church’s investment portfolio, which continues to include fossil-fuel companies that profit from activities that cause climate change.

This month, five bishops and more than 40 members of the clergy wrote a letter to The Guardian calling on the Church to finally pull its money out of Exxon Mobil (News, 10 November). While the company’s share price has fallen over the last three years, a far greener investment in the Church’s portfolio has proven much more profitable: trees. The C of E is the largest private owner of UK forests: it has 13,000 hectares, an asset class that has provided the Church Commissioners with a five-year average annual return of 15.4 per cent, the Financial Times reported.

The Church has used its large forestry holding to highlight one of the Government’s most backward energy policies: the effective ban on onshore wind turbines, just as they became the cheapest form of new power generation (News, 11 September 2015). Two years ago, the Church announced that it was exploring the possibility of building wind turbines on some of its forest land, while criticising the Government for cutting financial support to onshore clean energy. Since the last General Election, there have been hints that the Government may have realised the folly of its decision.


THE symbiotic relationship between trees and climate change was underlined recently by the Price of Wales. The positive impact of forests on climate change, as a living store of carbon dioxide that might otherwise be in the atmosphere, is well known, but the Prince warned that forests were also on the receiving end of global warming.

13th century original is anonymous; photograph by British Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsProtector: Charter of the Forest, 1225 reissue, held by the British Library

In an editorial for Country Life magazine this month, he described how climate change “makes the United Kingdom ever more suitable for warmth-loving organisms”, which suggested that “we should all be seriously alarmed by the recent rapid increase in tree pests and diseases in this country”.

In my previous job as a local newspaper reporter in Wiltshire, I heard a number of stories about Prince Charles’s reputation as a hands-on outdoorsman. He could often be spotted in the grounds of his Highgrove estate, personally maintaining his trees. People who shook his hand when he came to open the local hospital in Malmesbury commented on the rough callouses that revealed a man not unfamiliar with physical work.

In his Country Life article, he wrote of his sorrow at watching his Dutch Elm trees die from a disease spread by the elm bark beetle: “I planted an avenue of them at Highgrove, and then watched, miserably, as many of them succumbed. Losing almost every sizeable English elm from our countryside was such a profound change that I suspect every Country Life reader will have heard of Dutch Elm disease. The wider problem is that a great many more pests and diseases are now seriously threatening the health of all our native trees, yet public awareness of this seems to be frighteningly low.”


TREES have made a vital contribution to our national and spiritual life, but we are in danger of taking them for granted. They have been an ally for thousands of years, providing us with clean air, fruit and flowers, building materials, and fuel to keep us warm.

They have protected us, and offered sanctuaries for nature to lift our spirits and calm our soul. Yet we are in danger of causing permanent damage that could have serious consequences for creation. The Church can be a part of the solution. Now is the time, more than ever, to heed and proclaim the fifth mark of mission: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”


Joe Ware is a journalist and writer for Christian Aid

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