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When the Tree hunter met the tree minister

ATH verifier from Shropshire Rob McBride met his local MP, Owen Paterson, who just happens to be the Secretary of State for the Environment. He showed him maps of ancient oaks near his constituency home, as well proposing that the MP could go down in history as the minister who gave ancient trees the protection they need. Rob's account of what they discussed is a great example of ancient tree campaigning...

It is lucky that Owen Paterson is my local constituency MP and I'm just glad that I could meet him face to face to discuss a small selection of topics that need much deeper discussion. Topics that could probably have been explained a lot better by many folks who know a heck of a lot more about trees than I do.

Rob McBride meets Owen Paterson MP
Verifier 'Treehunter' Rob McBride with Owen Paterson MP

I know when I came out of the meeting I was thinking why didn't I say this and that…but then again that is always the case. I was advised to get three main points over to him only. I may have failed in that, as we definitely chatted on more than three tree related topics! We overran our allotted time chatting for about 35 minutes in all. I guess he knows what a tree is now, if he did not know before…especially ancient trees!

We covered the following topics: 'Tree Hay'; volunteering benefits, citizen scientists; Ancient trees, including protection schemes and 'Green Monuments'; 'greening' the CAP and enhanced agri-environment schemes for trees especially recognising 'Hotspots' for ancient trees; tree 'abuse'; Shropshire's veteran, ancient & notable trees; Woodland Trust, Ancient Tree Forum. These came up throughout most discussions; forests sell-off; Ash Dieback; hedgerow regulations review; tree hunting with him?

'Tree Hay'
I started off lightly by giving him some photos of my Romania trip and the 'Tree Hay' family feeding their animals with leaf fodder. We had chatted previously by phone on this and he had picked up on Ted Green's term of 'Tree hay' so I thought a nice opener. He was intrigued by it. It's always a good way to get into pollarding of trees and the benefits to all, tree, man, wildlife etc.I later returned to my trip to Romania and expanded on the tree hay chat into sustainability, self-sufficiency, how we (western Europe, USA, Canada etc) are basically wrecking their country to turn the Romanians into 'consumers' of our goods. We talked about how 'we' could learn so much from the Romanians, their tree skills and their use of natural resources. He had a copy of my Romanian 'Tree Hay' DVD.

Volunteering came next with discussion on the benefits this can provide to all concerned. I talked about my personal experience with the Woodland Trust, touching on my illness and how volunteering had helped enormously in my recovery. We discussed the benefits of physical work, getting outdoors, meeting folks, getting off computers, real work and more.

I told him of my recent trip and work in Spain giving lectures to Spanish students who have little prospect of work after college. I said volunteering may be a way for them to gain extra important skills and working with their great trees would be of benefit to them and their communities, as we all know in the UK.

We discussed unemployed people being involved with these opportunities. I emphasised the self respect and mental and physical benefits of such schemes. I threw in the government's push for 'localism' and how these projects fitted in so well with that agenda.

I used the North Shropshire Coppice Creation project (producing wood fuel and habitat) managed by Shaun Burkey of Shropshire Council as a good example of how people could get involved in these types of mutually beneficial projects. Hedgelaying and maintenance was talked around as an option for volunteers to gain purposeful experiences from and landowners gaining useful work done.

We discussed the Woodland Trust's 'citizen scientists' ideas for using folks to be trained and then go out into the countryside and report back pests & diseases they find, especially looking at Chalara this coming year.

Ancient tree protection
I explained of the situation regarding the lack of proper protection for our ancient trees. I informed him of how Wales is leading the way in trying to obtain protection for its ancient trees with the Woodland Trust, Ken Skates AM, myself and others. The 5,500 signature petition , the publicity and the actual will of the nation to go for this great project.

I explained the 'Green Monuments' campaign from the Tree Council, Woodland Trust, Ancient Tree Forum and Natural England and how this has been going for many years, but has not happened from any govt in power. I did say to him eye-to-eye as it were, that he could go down in 'English Tree History' as the man who gave our truly ancient trees the deserved protection they need.

I had spent most of the day printing out 15 or more postcard size and 4 or 5 A4 size nice photos of some of Shropshire's best ancient trees. All had written text on the rear explaining what the point of each photograph was. I had also spent time printing A4 maps of Owen Paterson's own locality and the 20 or so trees I have recorded in that area. I had inked in on the maps the species and girth of the trees and also added that one oak near his house was a Henry VIII oak. He was intrigued by that statement. I explained how important these 500 year old trees are for biodiversity as we all know, but he may not have known.

Using the maps I made a point of using Ted Green's phrase of the 'European Rainforest'. He looked a bit puzzled but I explained - that the UK has a very high proportion of northern Europe's ancient trees. I hope that sank in. I think it did.

OS map of Shropshire
OS map of north Shropshire

Owen Paterson MP lives top centre of this map. Over several years, I have recorded 30+ trees that are near to his house. He said he would view the ones marked next time out on his horse. I also offered him a tree hunting walk and talk session if he ever wanted one! Time will tell but I'm not holding my breath...

I showed him several Shropshire great oak trees which included a photo of the Pitchford Lime near Shrewsbury. A truly ancient Lime tree that has a Grade I listed Scheduled Ancient Monument tree house in it. I pointed out that the house has a greater level of protection than the tree, with its TPO. We chatted about this fact. I told him I thought (like many of us do) that this situation needs to change as it is plain crazy.

Tree protection, agri-environment schemes
The photograph below of the horse 'grazing' the old oak gave me the opportunity to discuss tree protection and agri-environment schemes. About what I have seen on my travels, about how young new trees have expensive guarding and the veteran and ancient trees are left to fend for themselves time and time again. Often being wrecked by grazing animals, compaction or inappropriate pruning.

Horse grazing an ancient tree
Horse grazes an ancient tree. Photo: Rob McBride

I gave him several photographs of Shropshire trees being 'abused' and some that have been wrongly felled. The tree below is a 7m+ Oak near Shrewsbury. The words on the photo say it all.

I was not anti-horse as I know he is a keen rider and only last year did a challenge race in Mongolia. We discussed how strange it is to have the old trees unprotected in this way when animals are in the locality.

This 205 year old (rings counted) 4.2m oak is very close to my house (it was felled when I was away). The 'tree surgeon' in question was supposed to trim back several limbs over the road but persuaded the landowner to fell it along with another two trees.

We discussed more on agri-environment schemes and about 'Greening' the CAP. And about what Jill Butler had asked: ways to enhance the agri-environment schemes for ancient tree 'Hot Spots' when an area is proven to have significant numbers of old trees in the landscape. How these could enable landowners to access payments for looking after and managing such valuable trees. I presented him with a WT Bodfach leaflet showing one such case that gets the point over very well I think.

Forests sell-off
I congratulated him on the recent announcement (the day before no less!) of the government's plans to adopt nearly all of the Forestry Panels recommendations. However, I did emphasise that the value of the wildlife and biodiversity should not be relegated in terms of funding and resources in favour of the commercial aspects of the forestry plans.

Ash Dieback
On the Chalara subject the main point I could make to him was one of funding, resourcing and government commitment to tackling it and supporting all the agencies concerned.

Working with the community to develop skills and knowledge to help volunteer Citizen Scientists to be early warning systems for the spread of the disease.

We discussed the Woodland Trust's three-point plan and Mr Paterson did comment that the Woodland Trusts contribution to the discussions and plans to tackle this problem were greatly appreciated and useful.

Hedgerow regulations & protection
We discussed the recent hedgerow case at Marrington Shropshire that we all know about. The 7 MILES of hedgerow that was planned to be grubbed up by a new landowner there.

He did start to say 'Well that is withdrawn now so'…I stopped him there, and, explained in detail about how they were only saved on their historic merits. How, totally rubbish it was for landowners on their planning notices to be able to say things like, 'there is no wildlife or biodiversity value in hedgerows', when clearly, as I repeated to him, 'We all know that hedgerows can have significant wildlife & biodiversity values, far more than in the chemical arable fields alongside them'.

I made the point of emphasising the many benefits of hedgerow trees and in-field trees. (I gave him a DVD I had made of Mrs Elise Jones talking about her countryside thoughts...just an amazingly beautiful description of the countryside and the benefits of hedgerows). We had filmed with her when we did the BBC1 piece made before the decision to save the hedgerows.

He was also made aware of the 400 objections to the removal plan. Of the 90 local folks who attended the public meeting, the many professors and doctors against the plans including Prof Oliver Rackham, and of course the many organisations and many individuals who objected.

With his government seeming determined to concrete over the countryside I finished by asking him to please review these regulations as a matter of urgency. Folks do not want to see large swathes of their historic, wildlife rich countryside turned into industrial farming 'mega- farms', prairies of eroding landscape. With the pressure on land from so many quarters including developers and increasing population (and yes we did discuss immigration too) we need proper protection for not just our old trees but our mosaic landscape of hedgerows and fields.

I gave him the full pack I had prepared which included Ancient Tree Forum brochures, ATH leaflets, Bodfach leaflet, and many printed ancient tree postcards and some selected A4 photographs. As we had our photograph taken I invited him again to come tree hunting locally with me if he wanted to see his local special old trees.

He asked me to put in writing what we had discussed.

I guess from our meeting that on reflection I did not get any commitments as such from Mr Paterson but at least got to present many items to him and hopefully one or two will lodge in his brain and may lead to something positive for our trees.

Rob McBride's website is

The Ancient Tree Hunt is a living database of ancient and special trees. It was launched in 2004 as a joint venture with the Tree Register of the British Isles and the Ancient Tree Forum, and led by The Woodland Trust.

- Data is used to support biodiversity planning
- The database helps tree protection initiatives
- We support programmes of seed collection from ancient trees.
- More than 110,000 hand-picked trees have so far been recorded in the UK.

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