When I was about eight, my Primary School had the wonderful idea that every child would plant a young sapling around the edge of the playground and playing fields. It was beautiful. Each child felt a parental bond to their own tree, and would visit it and felt some small sense of looking after it. Very quickly, the older boys found amusement in kicking the saplings, which were still fragile, scraping off the bark, snapping the branches off, anything they could find to be destructive. In response, myself and my friend formed Tree Watch. With the permission and support of one teacher, every playtime and lunch hour, we would patrol the field, protecting and guarding the trees, repairing any broken branches with splints in the hope they would heal, and ensuring no damage was done during the time that everybody was outside. We made posters and invented slogans, trying to make the other pupils feel the same passion for protecting the trees that we did. Of-course, some people laughed, but on the whole it was very successful and the trees are still there today, seventeen years later.
Over the past couple of weeks, the golf-course which backs on to my house has felled two-hundred healthy trees from around the edge of the course. The reason? They were blocking light on the greens, which interfered with the golfer’s shots. The trees, which were all fairly young and not thickly populated, are now almost all gone, leaving ugly, scarred land; bare and covered in sawdust.
Towards the end of last year, the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, revealed the Government’s intention to dispose of half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland run by the Forestry Commission by 2020. The plan to sell off our forests was planned to generate £100m, and the Government planned a complete overhaul of the Forestry Commission in its review of quangos.
However, this week David Cameron has admitted that he doesn’t like the plan after all. Ed Milliband asked the Prime Minister, in the Commons, whether he was happy with the plan to sell off the forests. To laughter, the prime minister replied: ‘The short answer to that is, no.’ He then indicated that the Government would make a U-Turn and back away from the plan.
No doubt referring to the national outrage and remonstration to the idea of losing the nation’s forests, Cameron said;
‘We’ve had a range of interesting responses to this consultation. What is important is that we should be making sure that, whatever happens, we increase access to our forests, we increase biodiversity and we don’t make the mistake that was made under the last government where they sold forests with no access rights at all.’
Perhaps what the Prime Minister is trying to say, using the phrase ‘increase access to our forests’, is that if they’re sold, what will happen to all the people who enjoy Sunday afternoons walking or bike-riding through the forests, or taking their children to play hide-and-seek through the trees? The forests are our national nature reserves, in the way that Africa has its national parks and Serengeti, America has Yellowstone, Yosemite, and The Rockies. Our forests are our nature, our natural beauty, all we have.
Milliband, valiantly expressing the feeling of the Briton on the street, railed during prime minister’s questions; ‘Even he must appreciate the irony. The guy who made the tree the symbol of the Conservative party flogging them off round this country. He says they are consulting on this policy. They are actually consulting on how to flog off the forests, not whether to sell off the forests. Is the prime minister now saying that he might drop the policy completely?’
After a few feeble attempts at a response from Cameron, which basically amounted to trying to wriggle out of answering on a discourse technicality, Milliband continued;
‘Everybody knows you have to drop this ludicrous policy. Let me give him the chance to do it. Nobody voted for this policy; 500,000 people have signed a petition against the policy. Why doesn’t he, when he gets up at the dispatch box, not say he is postponing the sale but say he is cancelling it?’
The response was a typically Tory attempt at sneering humour; ‘Once again, he read the question before he listened to the answer. I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree’, totally lacking any sensitivity to the nation’s deep-set emotional involvement in the issue.
If our trees continue to be ripped down, a few at a time, from roadsides, golf-courses and parks, and building of new houses and office-blocks continues at the rapid rate it is, what will Britain look like? What will happen to Arcadia? Where will be the green, the orange and gold of Autumn, the birds and squirrels to irritate us, the tree-houses in back gardens for a whole generation of children who won’t know how to scrump apples or climb trees?
If we aren’t that bothered by two trees here, four trees there, a few new houses, a bit less grass, here and there, slowly creeping down every street, in every town, how long will it be before it’s all gone? Not long! Do humans honestly believe we can carry on and never reach the end? Can we continue flattening Brazilian rainforests and English copses, and never come to the end of them?
If we look out of our window each day and see one less tree and one more building, how many days are left before all we can see is grey?