History repeating itself

I write this not to spark argument, because I know that a lot of derogatory comments, about tree-felling and Sheffield City Council, will follow. This post is merely to show that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

First and foremost, Sheffield has long boasted of being “Europe’s greenest city” – in part because a third of it sits in the Peak District. But it is also due to the sheer number of trees that line the roads.

Some 30,000 of them still arch over highways and footpaths, but according to a correspondent here, nearly six thousand have been felled between 2012-2018.

But let’s go back to 1939, when this letter appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph: –

“A very destructive hand has been at work among Sheffield’s trees. In the Fulwood district, trees apparently have been wantonly mutilated, reduced in some cases to barren stumps as though the ebullience of nature were being regimented to conform with nearby tram standards.

“It is obvious that the authority responsible for this butchering of trees do not understand that trees have a special beauty which depends upon their form and that each tree has its characteristic form which can be eternally ruined by unskilled pruning.

“I should like to recommend anyone who in future may cause a tree to be pruned, to employ a skilled woodsman and not a carpenter, and to arm the Woodsman with the Roads Beautifying Association’s leaflet called ‘Advice on the Pruning of Roadside Trees’.”

As might have been expected, a spokesman for Sheffield Corporation defended the actions.

“The trees were dealt with at the urgent request of the frontagers. Branches of the trees were right over their lawns, and in some cases the roofs, and the nuisance was aggravated by the fact that there were many crows’ nests in the trees.

“In some cases, trees are unsuitable for the street. They were far too big, and residents had neither light nor air.

“Actually, we are contemplating in cases like this removal of the trees altogether, and the planting of really suitable trees.”

But the matter didn’t stop there.

Complaints about unsightly, and in some cases unnecessary, lopping of trees in Sheffield, particularly in the older western suburbs, flared up again in 1945.

A 1946 Annual Report from the Sheffield, Peak District and South Yorkshire Branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England referred to a “holocaust, when graceful forest trees – perhaps Sheffield’s only remaining beauty – were reduced to mutilated stumps, regardless of their natural history or shape.”

The Branch commissioned a report by Mr A.D.C. La Sueur, consultant forester to the City of London, to inspect the trees and prepare a report. He concluded that in some cases trees had been lopped for no apparent reason and suggested that Sheffield employ a full-time arboriculturist.

A leaflet, “Town Trees,” was published in 1947 emphasising the need for progressive pruning over several years, rather than the Sheffield practice of heavy pruning at long intervals. The leaflet was reviewed in the press, including the Manchester Guardian and The Observer, the resulting backlash encouraging “constructive meetings” with the council about the treatment of the city’s trees.

And then it all died down… until a bigger battle began this century: one which spread across the city, saw mass protests and riot police on suburban streets, and ultimately revealed an astonishing secret plan – hidden within a £2.2billion contract – to cut down almost 20,000 street trees.