Felling trees

by Richard Jones

Saturday was a fabulous blazing sunny day ... I did the macho lumberjacking bit, in my suitably butch steel-toe-capped boots and very bright white hard hat.

Richard Jones felling a treeLast weekend, for the benefit of wildlife and nature conservation in south-east London, I cut down a tree. Despite their iconic status and green credentials, it is often necessary to cut down trees, and this one had plenty of reasons to go.

First, it was a Leyland cypress, Cupressocyparis leylandii, a tree so almost totally sterile for wildlife that a plastic Christmas tree would probably house more biological diversity. Secondly, it was so close to a building that any previous advantage of shelter or privacy had long since given over to oppressive and ominous obstruction. Thirdly, and most importantly, it completely shaded the small pond that it once, perhaps, complemented.

But this was not my tree, it was in the grounds of Goodrich Community Primary School, so there are certain protocols to follow. First, I had to justify its removal. The local authority, Southwark, who would have dealt with it had the tree been a danger or a health hazard, thought the request to fell it unusual: "We don't normally remove healthy trees" was their initial answer.

The environmental and wildlife grounds for getting rid of it were overwhelming. The tree was not large enough to be of much benefit to nesting birds. Leyland cypress is a foodplant for next-to no-invertebrates. There was no dead standing timber to offer fungoid growth for rot-feeding beetles. And it cast no appreciable shade for the benefit of the children.

Stump of felled treeOn the other hand, the pond behind it was completely shaded and overshadowed. It was polluted by leaf and twig fall from the tree. Removing the tree would allow the pond to regenerate to provide a really valuable wildlife site. It could then also be used as a teaching resource for the children - even though small, it would be perfect for pond dipping and fostering an appreciation of nature, wildlife and the environment. It had to go.

Over the last few months I've regularly logged on to the RSPB Homes for Wildlife web pages just to see how my meagre gardening skills are keeping pace with their recommendations. There is nothing about taking out Leyland cypresses, unless, perhaps by so doing I "increase the proportion of native plant and tree species". Ah, but I can get the pupils to build a hibernaculum for amphibians with the logs and retain the dead wood for timber-nesting bees and wasps (I'll drill ready-made nest holes for them). I'm slightly surprised that there is no action "prevent ponds from becoming overshadowed by nearby trees and shrubs" on the website. I've always taken this as one of the cardinal rules of pond creation and management, especially for small garden ponds where even a small amount of leaf fall can foul the water. I'll add that to my feedback to the RSPB.

Saturday was a fabulous blazing sunny day in East Dulwich and we made a family day out of the event. I did the macho lumberjacking bit, in my suitably butch steel-toe-capped boots and very bright white hard hat. My partner did much of the shredding into eco-bags for recycling (it was all her fault I got involved - she's a governor at the school), aided by 13-year-old. The 11-year-old swept up and the 3-year-old ate biscuits.

And you'll be pleased to know that no wildlife was inconvenienced by the tree's removal. I knocked a Jersey tiger moth from the small cherry tree as I entered the garden area; it zigzagged off crazily across the playground and came to rest on one of the creeper-covered walls. When I returned to finish off on Sunday a garden spider had spun its web across to the stump. Otherwise nothing.

But I know that next year, the pond will be home for damselflies, pond skaters and who knows, maybe even the frog that caused so much excitement when it hopped out across the tarmac at playtime last week.

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Gardeners' World Web User 04/11/2008 at 22:16

Thank you Richard for helping to regenerate the school garden! Now that the cypress has gone, light floods into the school classroom. I'm sure pupils will be grateful in due course....

Gardeners' World Web User 06/07/2009 at 11:19

ive just felled 4 of those trees in my garden- but dont know how to kill the roots- any ideas? i think i should pour something into the stump but what i know not!

Gardeners' World Web User 08/07/2009 at 11:24

Reply to Jill Farquhar You will not have to kill the roots. Cutting off a conifer kills it and it will not regrow. Only broad-leaved trees regenerate shoots from the cut stump, hence coppicing. Cutting off the remains of the stump to get it out of the way can be a pain. It is awkward and hard work to saw level with the ground. You can get root grinders, but these are probably professionally used pieces of kit. Why not nail a board on the stump and make your own bird table.

Gardeners' World Web User 07/08/2009 at 12:46

We have just cut down 10 of these and now have bare soil (ignoring the stumps) Does anyone have any idea what I need to do to the soil so that I can grow a more appropriate and wildlife friendly hedge/ border?

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:37

You'd do well as a lumberjack over here in Canada. ;)