National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN CAS­TLE

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.


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