The Felling: Sheffield tree protesters say film about battle with council gets to the root of their cause

If there wasn’t a film about it, you might not believe it had happened.

Friday, 18th March 2022, 11:19 am

That’s the verdict of two Sheffield tree protesters who reflected on their battle with the council as a new film premieres on Sunday chronicling the struggle.

The Felling - An Epic Tale of People Power will be shown at Sheffield City Hall and the screening is to be opened by former Lord Mayor Magid Magid, who supported the campaign.

So did Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson, who met The Star's sister title The Telegraph on Rustlings Road, where the tree-felling programme hit the headlines.

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Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson on Rustlings Road at a house the owner allowed campaigners to use for their tree felling protest.

Deepa, aged 50, is a vet who lives in Ranmoor and helped found the Save Our Roadside Trees group. Russell, 68, of Meadowhead, is a retired local government officer.

Both are in the film and still struggle to comprehend the dawn raid on trees on Rustling Road in November 2016.

“I still can’t believe that on a quiet suburban street there were 30 police officers, 20 security officers, six to eight barrier men and a dozen tree surgeons. It was absurd,” says Russell.

Protesters argued the trees should not be removed because they were healthy. There had been a stand-off until one morning when police and security arrived before dawn with the tree surgeons.

Tree protesters Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson on Rustlings Road

One tree was known as Delilah and it was first to go. “The police met before 4am and we know this because Delilah’s crown was off by 5am and that was an hour’s work,” says Deepa.

Russell adds: “Chainsaws shouldn’t be used in the hours of darkness. It was outrageous, a gross political error and did galvanise a lot of people.”

The Felling film-maker Jacqui Bellamy first started documenting the protests after learning about the night-raid on Rustlings Road, where seven mature trees were felled before dawn.

But how had it got to this point? The tree felling began in 2012 as part of a £2.2bn, 25-year street improvement project by council contractors Amey.

Tree protesters Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson on Rustlings Road by one of the trees they saved.

Deepa believes there were objections but they were brushed aside. “People tested the council, but they were shouted down and told they were the only ones complaining,” she says

Russell adds: “It was cast as a class issue, by dismissing the opposition as middle class - and not the concern of Dot on the Manor, as they said.

“People saw trees being decimated and thought ‘It’s the council, they must know what they are doing’. The dawn raid changed that - the council shot themselves in the foot.”

Deepa says 2,500 trees had been felled by the time she set up SORT, which Russell describes as the founding group.

Tree-felling work on Rustlings Road in Sheffield in November

“I’m a professional and I understand how things should be. It felt like there was something amiss, something was terribly wrong,” adds Deepa.

“It was not being done to arboricultural procedures and when we asked for the council’s reasoning they would feed us the line ‘felling is always a last resort’.

“We could see that wasn’t the case which was why I started campaigning.

“We were part of a global movement, talk of a climate emergency was growing, Extinction Rebellion was visible, there was a need for this.”

Russell adds: “For years I sought to inform the council of the value of trees and now we have successfully made the case.”

On top of the film, they reckon six books have been written about the issue and there is still an inquiry to be held, chaired by Sir Mark Lowcock, a former UN humanitarian chief.

Members of the public look on as contractors cut down a tree in Rustlings Road, where three people protesting against a controversial tree felling programme have been arrested after council contractors started cutting down trees with chainsaws before dawn.

Of the film, Deepa says: “If it hadn't been filmed, I don’t think people would have believed it.”

Russell adds: “I was filming and posting on Facebook but it didn’t bring the protest together. This film brings it together in a proper digestible and edited format.

“As a former local authority employee, I believe in local government but what happened was shameful and it needed us to act.”

They did and a number of protesters were arrested after they tried to block the work. The campaign took its toll.

Deepa says: “Many have suffered a great deal in terms of post traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues and anxiety.”

She’s one of them, having been diagnosed with breast cancer during the campaign and getting knocked over as the drugs she was on affected her judgement. Deepa says the stress caused by the campaign did not help her.

“I went to see my GP in 2018 about anxiety issues and he said there were lots of people with similar issues - there was a human cost of the campaign.”

But she’s hopeful the story is coming to an end. “We wanted acknowledgement of the council’s decisions and that’s what we’re hoping for in terms of an inquiry.

Russell adds: “We welcome the inquiry and I have huge respect for the appointed chair. I would urge anyone who has evidence to please come forward and present it to the inquiry. I hope and expect the inquiry to say what went wrong.

“Many protesters reported suffering anxiety as a result of seeing healthy trees attacked. It was for many, many people so distressing and left a lasting scar.”

Deepa says: “It has been six years since the raid and talking about it now brings a tear to my eye.”

Russell adds: “Maybe there will be a cathartic element to the film.”

Deepa agrees. “Some sort of healing. Validation for what we’ve been through as a collective. There will be an element of celebration as we have achieved much - a street tree partnership, which was needed.”

“My only regret is that we couldn’t stop them sooner,” says Russell.

To contact the inquiry, email [email protected]

Tree protesters Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson on Rustlings Road by one of the trees they saved.
Tree felling in Rustlings Road, Sheffield.
Tree protesters Deepa Shetty and Russell Johnson on Rustlings Road by one of the trees they saved.