In the picturesque village of Wolvercote, there are several rustic pubs, a village green and some well-maintained and rather lovely-looking old stone cottages. But this pleasant corner of Oxfordshire that borders Port Meadow and the River Thames, is not always as tranquil as it looks. When the wind blows in the wrong direction, there’s a less bucolic feature of the place: the persistent roar of the A34, which carves a brutal line through the landscape.
Until recently, a row of towering poplar trees near the river helped provide some protection against the sounds and sights of this major trunk road. But last week, residents heard a different loud noise to the heavy traffic. it was the sound of 90 of the poplars being felled.
It was not, however, the now-familiar story of local bureaucrats or greedy developers chopping down beloved trees as eco-protestors wept. Already this year, tree-felling rows have erupted elsewhere – in Plymouth, in Bromley – where devastated communities have struggled to understand why their trees have gone. But this time, there was an environmental justification given for the felling. The University of Oxford, which owns the land on which the non-native poplars stood, said the trees had to go in order to improve the diversity of the plants in the ancient meadow.
“The University regrets having to remove these trees, but wants to stress that this work was urgently and solely necessary to protect biodiversity in the thousand-year-old protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),” said a spokesman. “The SSSI is of local and national importance. In particular, the vegetation forming ‘MG4 grassland’ [floodplain meadow typically home to a unique plant habitat] on the site is of particular conservation importance due to its rarity.”
The works were carried out with the agreement of the Forestry Commission and Natural England, they said, and the university was “engaging with communities… around how we are replanting the area affected by our work with a more suitable species of tree.”
This did little to assuage the concerns of local residents, who wanted to know why no-one had informed them this was about to happen. “They didn’t warn anyone,” says Tim Hopkins, who lives in a 200-year-old cottage once occupied by late local hero John Thompson, a man credited with planting more than 10,000 trees around Oxford. Hopkins acknowledges that the university did not actually have to give any notice, but adds that some of the community has been upset nonetheless. “They said, ‘We’re used to seeing those trees and it would have been courteous to tell someone [this was happening].’”
In a private message to one concerned resident, seen by The Daily Telegraph, even an Oxford City Council official was critical of the university. “I find it disappointing that the university has not consulted or even informed the City Council or other stakeholder[s] including local groups and residents about these plans,” wrote Chris Leyland, tree officer for the local authority.
Another resident, Rob Whitty, who has long campaigned for a sound barrier to reduce the noise pollution, puts it more strongly. “So many people have been up in arms about this,” he says. “Nobody likes trees being cut down. But there’s a national focus, obsession even, with indigenous trees. And with our changing climate, are indigenous trees going to be able to withstand the heat and lack of water? Maybe we need a mix.”
The latest row over tree-felling illustrates a tension at the heart of how we manage the natural world. We harbour an emotional attachment to trees, plus we have been taught to see them as an asset, both to the environment, the air around us, and even to our mental health and wellbeing.