We can’t chop down all these trees and not harm our­selves

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Emma Mitchell Emma Mitchell is an au­thor who writes about how na­ture can im­prove men­tal health

In 2001 there were 1.3bn trees in Eng­land. That’s 25 for every per­son in the coun­try, the high­est num­bers since the first world war. One ar­ti­cle pre­dicted that in 2020 there would be more trees in Eng­land than in 1086, when 15% of the coun­try was cloaked in wood­land. Part of the rea­son for this buoy­ant out­look was the coun­try’s re­sponse to the great storm of 1987. We mourned for our an­cient yews and the beeches of Chanc­ton­bury Ring. Pe­ti­tions were drafted, many thou­sands of saplings were planted. We re­built our woods with solemn and im­pas­sioned ded­i­ca­tion.

The pre­dic­tions will not fall short. Across the UK, the num­ber of trees has sharply in­creased. In 2015 there were 3bn trees, 47 for every per­son, around twice as many as in 2001. These statis­tics might evoke a bosky eden where the wild wood is re­claim­ing the land, yet re­cent years have also seen a re­turn of large-scale felling, with Net­work Rail’s plans to cut down mil­lions more trees the lat­est ex­am­ple.

Net­work Rail’s view of trees is un­der­stand­able. Leaves on the line can cause trains to over­shoot sta­tions, and branches and en­tire trees fall­ing on to tracks cause de­lay or halt jour­neys. Be­tween March 2016 and March 2017, 233 trains col­lided with fallen trees.

The ef­fect on cus­tomers cost the com­pany hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds in com­pen­sa­tion per year.

But it is un­likely that Net­work Rail or Sheffield coun­cil – which has felled around 6,000 trees as part of a pro­ject to “im­prove the con­di­tion of the streets” of the city – have con­sid­ered the im­pact on hu­mans caused by the re­moval of so much ver­dure. Re­search shows that time spent among trees causes lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol to de­crease, low­ers blood pres­sure, in­creases the num­ber of ac­tive nat­u­ral killer cells, so boost­ing im­mune func­tion – and im­proves mood and concentration. In Ja­pan, shin­rin-yoku, or “for­est bathing”, is a wide­spread ap­proach to im­prov­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Many of these ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects are de­liv­ered by both phy­ton­cides – volatile oils re­leased by plants and trees to fend off infection – and by con­tact with ben­e­fi­cial soil bac­te­ria.

Peer-re­viewed re­search shows that spend­ing time among trees has favourable ef­fects on sev­eral of our body sys­tems, but there is ev­i­dence that sim­ply see­ing trees can con­fer ben­e­fi­cial changes. Pa­tients re­cov­er­ing from surgery have shorter post-op­er­a­tive stays and need fewer po­tent anal­gesics if their room has a win­dow over­look­ing trees. The in­ci­dence and sever­ity of men­tal health con­di­tions is in­creas­ing in the UK, and el­e­ments of our en­vi­ron­ment that can ben­e­fit men­tal health are more im­por­tant than ever. What a pity there will be fewer green vis­tas as a con­se­quence of track­side felling.

Pol­lard­ing is a tree-prun­ing tech­nique that can pre­vent in­di­vid­ual spec­i­mens from out­grow­ing their al­lot­ted space or ob­struct­ing elec­tric wires and street­lights in an ur­ban set­ting. Many of the trees felled in Sheffield were ma­ture limes, a species par­tic­u­larly suited to pol­lard­ing. This ap­proach would tem­po­rar­ily di­min­ish leaf cover, but in the longer term would con­serve habi­tats for birds and in­sects and en­sure that the men­tal health ben­e­fits of trees could be main­tained.

Mean­while, tra­di­tional hedge­lay­ing or cop­pic­ing tech­niques could be ap­plied to sev­eral de­cid­u­ous species that skirt rail tracks. If hedge­lay­ing tech­niques had been de­ployed be­fore the nest­ing sea­son be­gan in Fe­bru­ary, birds would still have been able to raise their young in the ar­eas of track­side where felling has taken place. If even a small pro­por­tion of the felled line­side tim­ber was left in situ it would cre­ate a habi­tat for wood-bor­ing in­sects, which in turn would pro­vide food for birds.

The re­sponse to the Net­work Rail leak was swift. On Fri­day, Brom­ley coun­cil is­sued tree preser­va­tion or­ders to pro­tect stands of ma­ture ash, sycamore and oak spec­i­mens grow­ing along the main lines in that bor­ough; the rail min­is­ter, Jo John­son, called a halt to felling to pre­vent more nests be­ing harmed dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, and or­dered a re­view.

We are a syl­van na­tion, en­chanted by trees; they in­stil awe and won­der in us, and this bio­philia con­fers an in­tense urge to be near them. Half a mil­lion peo­ple at­tended marches or signed pe­ti­tions against the pri­vati­sa­tion of 258,000 hectares of pub­licly owned wood­land in 2011: within months the gov­ern­ment with­drew its plans. The out­cry against these lat­est treefelling plans shows some­thing sim­i­lar.

Our na­tion’s need for wood­land and green spa­ces has never been greater. It is per­haps our bio­chem­i­cal and cor­po­real con­nec­tion with trees, the sub­con­scious knowl­edge that they bring balm to body and mind, that fu­els such protests. There are more sen­si­tive ways to use chain­saws that would per­mit the preser­va­tion of both ur­ban spec­i­mens and the green vis­tas viewed from trains. Keep­ing these trees in place would ben­e­fit hu­mans as well as eco­log­i­cal sys­tems.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MITCH BLUNT

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