I began my journey of discovery through trees during a winter tree walk on New Year’s Day, but my love of trees had been slowly growing in the background for much longer than that. It’s hard to say exactly what brought it to the surface at that particular moment. Maybe it was because I’d inherited a few tree books the year before from a family friend. Maybe it was because I’d heard reports in the media about a devastating new tree disease called ash dieback or maybe it was because the local green space where I grew up was facing development.
It wasn’t like that for Eastleigh Tree Warden Dick Walters though. He can trace the roots of his tree journey right back to a single episode – the Great Storm of 1987. Gale force winds gusting up to 100mph ransacked the country on 15th October, uprooting an astonishing 15 million trees. Thousands of street and railway trees were snapped in two, blocking roads and tracks and crushing parked cars. The famous beech grove at Chanctonbury Hill in Sussex took a severe beating and six of the seven oaks for which the Kent town of Sevenoaks is named were blown down. Something ‘woke up inside’ Dick that day, sparked a calling in him to try to replace some of the trees that had been torn out of the landscape.
In the aftermath of the Great Storm, and in response to a wave of community spirit that was sweeping through some parts of the country in response to the Dutch elm disease crisis, The Tree Council set up the national Tree Warden Scheme to recruit volunteers to plant, care for and stick up for trees on their patches. And when the scheme came to Dick’s local parish in 1990 he knew he had to sign up, even though he had little knowledge of conservation or even gardening.
In the 26 years that have followed, Dick has grown, planted and cared for countless trees. He has managed a tree nursery that supplied a thousand trees a year to parish councils and local community groups. He has helped to restore an ancient woodland that would otherwise have succumbed to neglect and climate change. He has done his best to prevent trees being needlessly lost in planning disputes, although he insists that he never ‘went quite as far as chaining myself to a tree’. He has planted a tree for each of his grandchildren and passed his love of trees down to them. He has even become a Druid, paying his blessings to the tree deities at an altar in his garden. Dick is now chronicling the last 26 years of his life and sharing his immense knowledge of trees with others via his website: growingnative.co.uk
While my tree story may not have started in quite the same eventful way as Dick’s, I too have been inspired to do something to replace lost trees – except in my case, we haven’t lost most of them yet. The Tree Council estimates that there are around 2.2 billion ash trees in Britain and the vast majority of them are expected to be wiped out by the deadly tree disease, ash dieback.
Most of my friends haven’t heard of ash dieback but if they were to take a walk across the countryside five to ten years from now, they might find their view of the landscape altered drastically, woodlands diminished and hedgerows decimated.
There’s not much we can really do to save our ash trees. But we can plant different trees to take their place. We are currently in the midst of Seed Gathering Season – The Tree Council’s annual autumn festival, which encourages everyone to get out and enjoy the changing colours, but also to collect seeds with the view to growing the trees of the future and changing the view for future generations. And that’s what I intend to do.
If I manage to get a tree to grow, well that will be something. Maybe I’ll even get more than one but I don’t want to get over-confident now. Either way, I’ll have a long, long, long way to go before I make anything like the difference that Dick has made to landscapes, wildlife, communities, families and individuals through his incredible, 26-year-and-counting tree story.