THE CASE OF THE ENDANGERED TREE AND THE ‘TAINTED’ TEA.
REBELLION OVER FELLING TREES IN U.K.’S SHEFFIELD
The three men in the street outside her house were there to take down one of the trees she loves, but Sue Unwin nevertheless offered them refreshments — two teas and an orange drink. She did so, she said, with an eye to buying time until fellow tree lovers could get there to help her stop the felling.
The plan worked, at least for that day. Unwin, an architect, said she thought nothing more about it until a couple of months later, when police showed up on her doorstep asking questions about what exactly was in those drinks.
Sheffield’s streets are lined with around 36,000 lime, elm and cherry trees, some showering its sidewalks with pink blossoms. The city’s plan to fell 6,000 during a five-year period had already prompted years of protests and confrontations, pitted neighbour against neighbour, and prompted one octogenarian couple to say they would risk prison to protect the trees on their street.
But matters reached a climax of sorts with the case of the toxic tea, or “Teagate,” as it has come to be known, in which Unwin was questioned about whether the drinks might have been spiked with a laxative.
“I was absolutely shocked that they could suggest that anyone would do that,” said Unwin, 59, in her home on Chatsworth Road, as she sipped hot — and definitely poison-free — Darjeeling tea.
“They mentioned laxatives,” she added, referring to the two detectives who had questioned her. “I said, ‘ We don’t have any laxatives in this house, we are vegetarian and we have got no need for them.’ ”
Removing trees is just one part of a US$ 3- billion, 25- year contract for a highway and sidewalk maintenance project in Sheffield that some believe is years overdue.
Many trees planted more than a century ago are com- ing to the end of their expected lives and are being replaced by saplings, while the roots of others are cracking sidewalks and damaging property, said Bryan Lodge at Sheffield City Council.
But many residents, like Chris Rust, co-chair of Sheffield Tree Action Groups, see the project quite differently, saying that while they have no problem with cutting down some dying trees, the plans are indiscriminate and “an assault on where we live and our living conditions.”
For now, the Teagate trail seems to have gone cold. Unwin, who thinks the episode was designed to discredit protesters, said she had been told by her lawyer that there would be no further action.
But Darren Butt of Amey, the company doing the maintenance work, said the inci- dent was a sign of an increasingly lawless protest.
“Teagate is genuine, I can guarantee it’s genuine,” he said, adding he was not accusing any individual, but that the three victims had been ill enough with stomach problems to stay off work for more than a day.
Despite the opposition — and even the intervention of Britain’s secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, who described the felling program as “bonkers” — around 5,700 of the targeted trees have been cut down. The remaining 300 are those protesters have worked hardest to protect.
Matters were complicated by the fact that Amey is a private firm. That fuelled campaigners’ suspicions the trees were being cut to simplify maintenance work and make it as economical as possible. Some also wondered if the contract limited Amey’s discretion to negotiate alternative solutions to felling.
The accusations are denied by Amey and Sheffield council, but the contract has been published only in redacted form, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. In total, it allows for up to 17,500 trees to be felled over the full 25-year period, though council argues this is not a target and the figure is merely intended to cover the most extreme scenario.
When workers arrive to chop down a tree, protesters use a variety of techniques to stop them, including “bunnying,” hopping over barriers erected around targeted trees, and “geckoing,” standing next to garden walls and refusing to move. It’s not exactly tree-hugging, but the basic tactic is to get too close to allow the tree to be felled in safety.
The tree fellers say they remain convinced that they are doing residents a favour.
“What you can see is a large number of trees causing damage, so why wouldn’t you take them out now, and replace them with new perfect trees for the location, and future generations will also see a beautiful majestic avenue of trees?” Butt said.
But campaigners say most of the trees are free of problems. They promised to continue the resistance.
Both sides are now tensed for a showdown. Last summer, city council won an injunction to prevent bunnying or geckoing, and in November, Amey brought in an 18- strong security team to guard “safety zones” around trees being felled.
Unwin, the architect, said she was more determined than ever to protect the trees, no matter what countermeasures Amey or anyone else might take.
“There is nothing special about this street, it’s a conglomeration of architectural styles, and the trees just tie it all together,” she said.
A worker with Amey, the private company contracted to fell thousands of dying, diseased and decaying trees in Sheffield, England, prepares a tree for felling.