Tree Wardens at a regional forum workshop about gathering seeds to grow into new trees

From Tiny Acorns...

18th October 2008

Twenty one years on from the Great Storm of 15 October 1987, Jack Watkins looks at a conservation scheme that developed from the wreckage.

When South East England was hit by a freak hurricane in the autumn of 1987, the resultant carnage to the region’s tree population stirred feelings of both visual and psychological devastation in the minds of tree lovers for months afterwards.

Twenty one years on, the consensus is that nature has repaired itself remarkably well. The intervening years have provided a reminder of the ability of native trees to regenerate themselves by self-seeding, suckering or, in many cases, sending up new shoots from fallen trunks, without the need for expensive planting programmes. Even trees that withstood the blast but had their crowns torn out still live today, bearing their wounds like proud, battle-scarred warriors – monuments in the eyes of a younger generation who were barely knee high when the ‘hurricane’ took place.

So, in tree terms, 1987 was not the total calamity it felt at the time. One definite benefit was that it awoke recognition in the wider population of the need to look after Britain’s rich tree heritage. And out of that realisation came a new initiative that has since become a nationwide success story.

When the Tree Council, the environmental charity, set about assessing the storm damage twenty years ago, it learned that East Sussex County Council had a head start over most other places because it had in place a network of volunteers whose local parish knowledge had enabled the rapid drawing up of a response strategy.

The Tree Council was quick to see the potential in the idea, and sought to develop it with interested local authorities and parish councils. Today, with the sponsorship of the energy utility National Grid and a grant from the Department of Communities and Local Goverment, there are 8,000 wardens in 140 networks across the country, working with local authority tree officers and specialists. The concept has proved so effective that it has been adopted as far afield as the USA and Hong Kong.

Jon Stokes, Director of Rural Programmes for the Tree Council, has been involved with coordinating the scheme since 1989, and reckons he has one of the best jobs in the world. “You get to meet all these people doing extraordinary jobs all over the country, with trees at their core. They are people who have given up their spare time to go out and organise woodland planting, management, walks and talks, all driven by their passion for trees.”

The more urbanised British culture becomes, the stronger the emotional desire to recapture the connection with nature experienced by our great-grandparents (without even thinking about it). Jon believes that getting involved with trees is an easy way for ordinary members of the public to reconnect with the countryside. “They are a simple, demonstrable way of feeling you are helping the environment, because you can easily do something about planting them, whether in your back garden, in the school grounds, or in a village community setting. This is much easier than bat conservation, for instance, when you have to go and find the bats. Trees are everywhere, and it is easier to relate to them.”

Part of the allure of becoming a tree warden lies in its broad job description, which also means there is a role for you no matter what your age. It seems you can put in as many hours as you wish, and your area of involvement can depend on personal levels of expertise. “People need to be interested in trees, but they don’t need to be knowledgeable,” explains Jon, “because the local authority networks run training courses to give them the basics of what they will need to know about the trees in their particular area. There is a whole support mechanism, and it’s very much what you make of it, whether it is surveying ancient trees, planting, or taking walks.”

Many wardens act as the eyes and ears of their community, monitoring planning applications and felling licences, or checking that Tree Preservation Orders have not been violated. While the early emphasis was in rural areas, new government funding has enabled more attention to be given to the setting up of warden networks in urban areas, where trees will play an increasingly important role in helping to cool temperatures as the globe hots up.

Ann Stanmore became a tree warden in the mid 90s, covering the parishes around Windsor in a scheme coordinated by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. She is a classic example of how a person with no prior knowledge of trees can find their understanding of nature transformed by becoming a warden. She believes her ‘outsider’ background has also been an advantage in talking to the public.

“Before I became a warden, I’d never given trees much thought as to whether they were important or not. There is a huge percentage of the public who are just like I used to be. I still don’t go into a lot of technical detail when I’m talking about them, but it doesn’t matter. I’m so enthusiastic about trees now, I just hope it rubs off on some of the others.”

Her work is a mix of the practical and the educational. There have been many well meant community planting schemes, but they are worthless unless launched with an understanding that the project does not end with the bedding in of a sapling’s roots. If vegetation around young trees is not controlled it will deprive the young tree of precious water and nutrients. Many of Ann’s tasks have therefore involved clearing away scrub from past planting initiatives.

She says people often think they are doing their bit for the environment by planting a tree in their garden, only to become disheartened when it dies. “They think that, because trees are not looked after in the wild and survive, ones in the garden don’t require aftercare. Well, they might grow on their own, but generally they will need a lot of watering in their first few years.”

As a Tree Warden, Ann and her colleagues may refer queries to Borough Tree Officers before owners carry out work on trees – another vital issue when many people are tempted to cut corners by employing ‘cowboys’ who offer to work cheaply, but who lack genuine expertise.

It’s all too easy to be precious about trees. Public indifference can be frustrating to those who devote much of their time to them, and recognise them as bringers of beauty to the landscape, as objects of veneration in their own right, regardless of the birds and invertebrates that depend upon them. But, as Ann says, to get pious on the subject is the wrong way of going about it. “If you do that, all you’ll get is serious, boring people becoming involved, and who is going to listen to you? It’s better if you can show you can have a bit of fun while doing it.”

She puts high value on giving talks to schoolchildren and involving them in eye-catching schemes like tree-dressing (the decoration of trees) or encouraging them to draw pictures. Above all, she tries to convey their special magic. “I say to them: ‘Look out of a window, and imagine if all the trees were removed. You could probably see for miles, but how miserable that view would be’.”

For more details on how to become a tree warden,
visit the www.treecouncil.org.uk (020 7407 9992)
or contact your local parish council.

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