No day at work is completely routine or normal, but for me last Tuesday was exceptional. It was nearly two years ago that the Woodland Trust launched its ‘Gnarled and Wrinkly’ petition for better protection of Wales’ ancient and heritage trees.
On Tuesday, some 5,300 signatures later and following the sad loss of the iconic Pontfadog Oak, I got to attend the first meeting of a Task and Finish Group the Welsh Government has set up to look at how such protection could best be provided. I have to congratulate Alun Davies, Wales’ Natural Resources Minister for taking the far-sighted decision to establish the group. It brings together an impressive bank of experts who between them must have hundreds of years of experience of protecting ancient trees, managing land and looking after our heritage.
The terms of reference are to make recommendations for updated, streamlined and more effective processes for the protection of ancient, heritage and veteran trees.
At the group’s first meeting this week there was a lot of enthusiasm to do the right thing by our ancient trees, some wide-ranging discussion on the way forward and some interesting, blue sky, ideas. Under the new Welsh Environment Bill, Natural Resources Wales will need to produce Natural Resource Plans for different areas of Wales. Could these include each area’s special ancient and veteran trees? Doing this would certainly add that local touch that could help bring them to life for the general public.
And in terms of simplifying the two systems of Tree Preservation Orders and Felling Licences, what about introducing a simple notification system similar to the hedgerow regulations, requiring landowners notify the Planning Authority say six weeks before any tree over say 150cm diameter was to be felled or damaged, and allowing them to go ahead and do this if the Local Authority raised no objection within this time. Of course there would have to be exceptions for trees representing an imminent threat to life. Would that actually put less of a burden on both landowners and Local Authorities, while providing greater protection for trees?
Finally, isn’t it vital that there should be some positive support for the owners of those ancient and heritage trees that require work to keep them in good shape? Their trees provide huge benefit to local communities. So why should they not get some help looking after them? There are, as of today, some 33,000 listed buildings in Wales, which are well protected in law, with support for owners where maintenance work is necessary. There are probably only around 700-1000 really important ancient trees. What’s more, they’re living things which, once lost, cannot be rebuilt.
The Task and Finish Group has a challenge ahead of it if it’s to bring forward concrete proposals which will be acceptable to Government while at the same time providing greater protection for ancient trees. But the group has a lot of talent, experience and good will and I really hope it succeeds.
Rory Francis, Communications Officer Wales