Bunnies and the 'game' of saving Sheffield's trees

Trees in Sheffield - Picture David Bocking
Trees in Sheffield - Picture David Bocking
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A tree-lined avenue in Meersbrook, where Streets Ahead contractors are erecting a high Heras fence around a condemned tree.

People stand around watching, or asking contractors about the wording of the injunction notice and other matters.

One is sporting mittens and a draw-stringed black bag over their head, like a small and crumpled Darth Vader in an anorak.

Just before the final piece of ‘safety zone’ fencing can be slotted into place, the masked person steps inside, leans on the tree, and work stops, probably for the day. A woman reads a poem. Darth Vader is now officially a ‘bunny.’

“In a sense, it’s a game,” says Russell Johnson from Sheffield Tree Action Groups, adding: “Anyone who goes in an active safety zone we nickname a bunny, and recently the bunnies have been masked up.”

Nearby, in Norton Lees, an arborist has started work high in an ash tree, against the autumn backdrop of the Gleadless Valley woodlands. STAG campaigner Celia puts away her phone, and watches sadly.

“Trees are so good for us mentally and emotionally and to stand watching another tree come down is almost physically painful,” she says.

Celia has witnessed insults towards arborists and campaigners on her travels, and says: “We try to deflame the situation. We don’t want anything fiery happening on the streets.”

Like many campaigners she’d like ‘proper’ talks to help calm the situation, and says the felling crews are caught in the middle of the dispute.

“That’s one reason we prefer not to make things more difficult for them, apart from stopping the felling.”

More campaigners arrive, and a woman stands on a garden gate post to film the arborist working with his chainsaw high in the ash tree.

Darth Vader in mittens arrives, steps over the fence, and so work stops again.

Wadsley, another steep tree-lined road, and arborists have almost set up their fences when a watching man pulls up his scarf and hood, slips on his sunglasses, and steps inside the safety zone. Work stops. Curtains twitch.

“We don’t have a website with crowdfunding and legal assistance,” says Tony, who lives in a house down the road where a large tree has already led to roof repairs.

“We don’t go to other areas of the city and frustrate the work of STAG.”

He talks about roots damaging his garden wall and driveway, and his conversations with a person who said the uprooted pavement and steep hill make travel on one side of the road impossible in their invalid carriage.

“The protestors think they have the moral high ground, but in our view it’s about individual trees causing problems.

The wider arguments about pollution and the planet are secondary to the immediate concerns of our road.”

Up the hill, the masked man has lashed out at one of the arborists and fled the scene, so work is now under way, while protestor Peter is wedged with his bike just behind a safety fence to curtail work on another tree nearby.

“Last week I was there under that tree in the wind and rain for five hours to at least slow down the felling,” he says.

“It’s an absolute shame that something so magnificent should be felled for reasons I think are unnecessary.”

Two neighbours, who have asked to be called Janet and Diane, see the felling as very necessary, because of existing or potential damage to their houses.

“We love trees, but within reason for their locality,” Janet explains.

They say protestors have parked their cars outside for weeks to prevent felling, and they’ve been filmed when they go outside to talk. Janet, a pensioner, feels intimidated by people in masks standing outside her house.

“I think Sheffield is the best place in the world, but I think all this has destroyed our reputation,” says Diane. “This militancy is such a contrast to what I know and love about Sheffield.”

On Abbeydale Park Rise, early tea and cakes provided by un-militant residents for the visiting media are overshadowed by the even earlier arrival of contractors, who have already removed a rowan tree at the top of the road.

88-year-old resident Betty Sims helped raise money from neighbours to plant many of the street’s 60 trees over 40 years ago under the city’s ‘plant a tree’ scheme, and her husband Eric first set up the road’s famous Christmas lights.

“If they are damaging or unsafe perhaps trees should come down, but not lovely healthy trees,” she says.

The road’s cherry trees are now old and gnarly, but Ann Anderson of Save Dore, Totley and Bradway Trees reckons many of the 17 marked for replacing could be saved by engineering works, and if that fell outside the existing funding, she’d like talks about how money could be raised, with residents possibly helping.

“It’s not just about the trees, it’s about the lights, the blossom, the people. The trees are a gel that bring everyone together.”

After negotiations with arborists, Ann and colleagues agree to stand back and allow two diseased cherry trees to be felled.

But halfway through work on the second, a woman seen on many conflicted avenues takes up position under the tree, and work has to stop.

The contractors leave for the day, while protestors catch up with social media.

The ‘game’ continues.