Shocked: Devon village shocked by felling of 100 ancient beech trees

Not much is happening in the sleepy village of Colaton Raleigh, where nearly half the residents are retired. So the local walkers were horrified when they woke up one morning to an act of environmental destruction that left the crippled stumps of 100 ancient beech trees.

Residents of an east Devon community have mourned the loss of beloved trees, located in a special conservation area and site of special scientific interest, home to many local flora and fauna, after they cut by a government agency without consulting the community or council.

An application was made by a local landowner to the Forestry Commission, a branch of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It would not comment on individual cases, but said all decisions were made in accordance with its standards.

The trees are located in a special conservation area. Photo: Fiona Carroll

Alan Pearce, a tree warden from the area, said: This should be a fairly wide consultation because it is part of our heritage, mature hedgerows that go back hundreds of years. If they are gone you are talking about 200 years to grow again. The stumps look almost all of them perfectly sound and solid. I do not see that they can say that they are sick or dying. It’s meant to plant trees, not cut them down.

He said that the people were absolutely terrified, with a walker crying because of the decision, which he suggested could have been taken to develop pasture land in the adjacent field.

Fiona Carroll, another resident, said: A lot of people walk in this area because it is part of a large expanse of heathland and they are at a loss as to why this is allowed to happen. These are, in my view, priceless scenery and wildlife stands along a wide old Devon bank. The roots grow into large supporting structures that give many different looks. My impression now is that this destruction is an act of vandalism.

Ewan Macdonald, who researches how people relate to the environment at the University of Oxford, said he was not surprised that the felling had provoked such an emotional reaction because of the way people are connected to trees.

It highlights how intrinsically linked things like trees, environment and preservation are to our culture, he said. The value of trees takes on importance with age, so I can see why removing them would be upsetting. It is a natural thing that people form an attachment to things that they can personify or build a relationship with.

He added: I think it is always important to involve the local community in any decision made about conservation. That’s not to say that the Forestry Commission doesn’t have good reasons for removing trees, but communicating the reasons to people and making sure that the community feels involved and brought to that is an important thing. It shows that it is difficult for anyone to own nature wholeheartedly.

Beech felling is not the first to provoke anger. Most recently, the felling of 40 palm trees in Torquay in Devon which featured in the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers prompted accusations that the council had completely destroyed the seafront.

This follows a similar controversy when 110 trees were removed under cover of darkness in March 2023 in Plymouth as part of the cities relandscaping of Armada Way, which ultimately led to the resignation of the Conservative leader of the council.

And in 2016, five people were arrested in a bitter council dispute over tree felling in an affluent suburb of Sheffield. Nick Clegg, then the constituency MP, described the incident as something you would expect to see in Putins Russia, rather than a suburb of Sheffield.

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