The Cultural Value of Trees

Here Mark Chester, of the Consulting Arborist Society, explains why we should value our trees and woods more, not only for their financial and ecological benefits, but for their aesthetic and cultural values.

Britain is home to an estimated 75% of all of Western Europe’s veteran trees, and a collection of ancient woodland respected throughout the world. We have some of the most important trees and woodlands, dating back sometimes more than a whole millennium.  They represent a connection with our history, and an ecological resource which is irreplaceable.  Yet somehow, their value and importance does not seem to be being appreciated.  Daily, they seem to be under threat from development pressures.  What can be done to make their value more appreciated?

I have been involved with the development process for much of the past two decades, initially as a tree officer in a planning department and latterly as a consultant. Developers operate in a commercial environment, in which they seek to identify the optimum, and usually maximum, developable space within a site.  In my experience, they wish to establish constraints at the earliest stage.  The presence of a tree with a Tree Preservation Order, or a property which is listed, focuses the mind on the constraints it presents.

There are elements to the planning process to which we can attribute a financial value, funding a community project, or resourcing mitigation works. Thus, we have habitat off-setting and the provision of ecosystems to accommodate migrating frogs and toads, and nesting birds, for example.  For trees, we can identify a value, usually based on the anticipated cost of replacing a specimen.  This can be used for compensation claims, to resolve a claim for damages or to resource mitigation planting.  Knowing how valuable a tree is can inform whether to fell or retain.

Valuing an asset needs to be done in a sustainable manner. It is not sufficient to say that something is valuable, and important, and randomly allocate a value.  It is possible to value a street tree at £10,000, for example, based on size, impact on the locality and condition of the individual tree.  There is no value for longevity.  In addition, many trees are not easily replaceable.  The late Professor Oliver Rackham commented that a single oak tree aged five hundred year old is more valuable than one hundred oaks each aged four hundred years old!

Ancient woodland has been continuously in situ at least five centuries.  Not only can the flora be valuable, but the fauna may be irreplaceable.  The soil may have accumulated over the centuries and contain organisms unique to the setting. I find that, somehow, the value and fragility of this resource is not really appreciated.  Last year, I reviewed a development proposal to create a motorway service station in Warwickshire.  The development area extended in to ancient woodland, and the proposal included planting numerous new trees to mitigate, something the applicants considered was a really generous offer.

Within the last year, ancient woodland has been cleared in order to allow a quarry to be expanded, as the benefits of accessing the materials were considered greater than retaining the woodland. Part of the problem is that there are those who see woodland or a field as an undeveloped opportunity. Didn’t someone once write, ‘what is life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’, to enjoy these treasures.

We are reassured that trees of merit can be protected by Tree Preservation Orders. The problem is that the legislation supporting these is largely unchanged since it was first introduced as part of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  They exist to protect living trees which make a visual contribution to a mainly urban setting.

In my days as a tree officer, I recall visiting one site where an oak stood, once majestic and towering but a much-reduced specimen. Its branches were largely stripped of foliage, although life remained.  I really wanted to protect it.  The reality is that because dead wood is exempt from the protection, the owner could remove so much of that tree as to render it of very little value.  I recently visited a woodland, hearing bird song and watching young frogs explore the damp undergrowth.  The woodland is protected, yet the numerous dead trees can be removed because they are exempt.

Allocating a financial value to trees is really useful, especially when seeking to mitigate removal or to make proposals requiring their removal uneconomic. What do we do when the trees are of historic, heritage, value?  When they are irreplaceable?  May I suggest this is where Natural Heritage status could apply?  Trees and woodland could be large specimens, or smaller ones.  I once found a veteran Mulberry on a site which was being developed, and worked to ensure it would be retained.  In fact, the development was called Mulberry Gardens in its honour.

In my village, the Norman church is listed, as is the red phone box. Both are valued locally.

If we value our heritage trees and woodland, could we not make them subject to such orders? This would raise their profile.  It wouldn’t stop development, but developers would need to present a very good argument to support their proposals.  When considering developing a new runway at Heathrow airport, the presence of a 12th century church on the proposed route became a key issue.  A fresh approach with a shorter take-off was promoted with the benefit that the church would be unaffected.

I value heritage trees and woodlands. I am passionate about them.  I don’t expect others to share that passion.  I do, however, ask that they recognise what makes our heritage trees of value, a value that is priceless.  And allow them to be retained for the next generation to enjoy.  Who knows, more people may come to appreciate the qualities.




The Tree Charter calls for the cultural impact of trees to be recognised and celebrated. Help give it strength – Sign today


Check out the Tree Charter Arts and Heritage Trail!

Comments are closed.