Wight Life

Just an Ordinary Tree

by Joyce Eley

THE SOUND OF SAWING and scattered branches on the roadside made me realise that forestry men were at work. Some rather poor specimens of elm trees were being cut down. I asked one of the men what was happening and if the trees were suffering from Dutch elm disease, and was told rather apologetically that they were being cut down to widen the road and make way for a footpath. Even then I could not believe they would fell the magnificent tree I had so often admired, but next morning it had gone. Only the hacked and useless stump remained.

No one can deny that traffic congestion in Bembridge becomes an increasing problem every year, and as a motorist myself, I can appreciate the ultimate necessity of widening Church Road, but it is not only in Bembridge this is happening; it is all over the Island. Every time a road is widened or a new estate is built, a little bit of rural England disappears for ever, and with it many of Britain's native trees. It seems incongruous that in 1973 with its slogan of 'Plant a tree in '73' so many trees should be felled to the detriment of the natural beauty of our Island which is the main attraction for both visitors and residents. A preservation order can be placed on an exotic tree, like a cork oak, which persistently sheds its leaves to the distraction of its owners endeavouring to keep their garden tidy, but seldom is it placed on an ordinary tree; and even if it is, there are ways and means by which the property developer can get round the order.

One wonders for how much longer our native trees will survive. Take the field elm as an example; it is a typical British tree. It will not grow on the hills where the soil is poor but flourishes in the rich alluvial soil of the valleys where it mayattain a height of over 130 ft. It must at one time have been the dominant tree in large areas of natural woodland which over the years have been cleared for agriculture. The elm is frequently the last relic of those old woodlands and has survived mainly in the hedgerows. With roads encroaching upon the fields, the elms are in increasing danger of destruction, and as their side branches are liable to break off, lopping often spoils their symmetry. However some fine elm trees can still be seen along the Ryde to Sandown road as one approaches Brading, and in the Brading marsh area.

n the '40's there was an outbreak of Dutch elm disease when the trees were attacked by a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle. The trees got over this attack and the virulence of the disease diminished, only to recur with renewed vigour quite recently. It was not only prevalent in Holland but as it spread rapidly through England and the Isle of Wight, many trees had to be felled in an effort to eliminate it. The wood of the field elm is tough and difficult to split. It resists decay if kept dry or continually wet. For this reason it is used as structural timber for under-water works at docks and harbours; but there are many other trees whose timber is of greater value, so it is rarely planted as a forest tree. Its survival depends on the farmers and landowners who allow the tree to grow in their hedgerows to provide shade for their cattle and to beautify our countryside; but with the increasing use of mechanical cutters which hack away indiscriminately, how long can it survive?

How long can all the other ordinary trees survive when one sees the bull-dozers slashing into the copses to make way for houses? One protesting voice cannot make itself heard but several voices can, as the villagers of St Lawrence found when they held a protest meeting about the proposed widening of the Undercliff road, and won the day. Can one imagine this beautiful winding road shorn of the trees through which one catches such delightful glimpses of the sea? If people must drive fast, there is an alternative road.

Photograph by A & D Vincent

Other parts of the Island, besides such a well-known beauty spot as the Undercliff, are also being threatened with the loss of their trees. Freshwater protested about the use of 'White land' for building purposes because it included an area of natural woodland. More recently the Seaview Residents' Association protested about uncontrolled felling of trees at Sandbanks to provide space for garages. The county planning committee carefully debate the need for the destruction of trees before giving permission for building, but as it deals with some 4,000 applications every year, it is not always aware of how much tree felling is involved. It is apparently up to local associations to notify County Hall, but does everyone know what is going on? Brighstone seems to have the answer. They have formed a Brighstone village society for the conservation of the village, one of the loveliest on the Island. One of the functions of the society will be to inform people of what is going on in the village with regard to such matters as planning. So although the county planning committee have an overall plan for the Isle of Wight, let us remember it is up to the inhabitants of every town and village to be alert to those plans, and to take their share of responsibility in preserving the natural beauty of our Island, much of which we owe to our ordinary native trees.

Let us hope that Robert Browning's sentiments in 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' may always be true:

'And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood Sheaf
Round the elm tree bole are in tiny leaf.'