Why our city can’t always see the wood for the trees

A tree causing the pavement to rupture, one of the many tree issues the Streets Ahead team has to deal with.
A tree causing the pavement to rupture, one of the many tree issues the Streets Ahead team has to deal with.
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There are two million trees in Sheffield.

But while these leafy giants give the city its ‘greenest city in Europe’ status, they’re not without controversy.

Every day, the council is bombarded with dozens of calls from Sheffield residents about whether trees should be chopped down or left alone.

These towers of life may appear to be mere bystanders of Sheffield life, but they don’t half get the public fired-up.

“We get so many calls about trees, which is great because it shows that people really care about them. We find that people are either pro tree or anti tree,” says Darren Butt, who manages the Streets Ahead team.

“People either love a tree or they want it chopped down.”

Of the two million trees in the city, 36,000 are roadside trees, and looking after them is a full-time job – and not just for one man.

Enter the council’s Streets Ahead team – 22 men and women who regularly inspect, maintain and sometimes remove Sheffield’s roadside trees.

But it’s not a straightforward job, as head of highways maintenance Steve Robinson explains.

“It’s a lot more technical than people think. We have to take into consideration the health of the tree, its future wellbeing, the level of decay and damage and assess whether there’s an immediate risk.

“Some trees are healthy but we have to consider taking them down because they cause an obstruction, or cause damage to footpaths and roads.”

The consequences of failing to take down potentially dangerous trees can be disastrous.

Only two weeks ago a student cheated death when a huge tree from a private garden on Ecclesall Road fell on to a bus stop, knocking her unconscious. Fortunately, the student recovered, but the incident proved oversight can be lethal.

Since August 2012 as many as 990 trees have been removed from Sheffield’s streets, although taking down a tree is never easy.

“We recently had a tree in a residential area and one resident wanted it out and another wanted it to stay. It’s all about finding the right balance,” says Steve.

But the job’s not only about removing trees, it’s about maintaining them as well.

And today, a small army of tree surgeons is gathering on Upper Albert Road, Meersbrook, to prune the trees lining the steep road.

One of the tree surgeons – Andy Greenwood – dangles from a heady height as he trims the tree’s branches.

Assisting him is a look-out, apprentice tree surgeon Shane Bray, who tells him when a car is coming. At that point, to avoid dropping a huge falling branch onto anyone’s windscreen, Andy must stop.

The whole process, with all this stopping and starting, takes quite a while.

But prior to their trimming, the trees are all assessed. And that’s tree inspector Brian Stocks’ job.

“There are lots of indicators as to whether a tree is healthy or not,” he says.

“If it’s dying there will be less leaf growth, there may also be leaves growing on the base of the tree - though some species have this even when they are healthy – and there could be liquid coming from the stem of the tree.”

When a tree is removed, the council says it is always replaced - although not necessarily in a nearby location - with careful consideration as to what species to use.

As many as 990 trees have been planted in the past 18 months, according to Streets Ahead, and it’s Brian’s job to decide which trees to use.

“There is a particular group of lime trees that have that a column-like appearance but they’re not too big,” says Brian. “We have to think about how a tree will develop over time. Some trees are too tender for city life but others – like the London Plain – seem to cope with air pollution quite well.”

All Sheffield’s trees are bought from Barchams in Cambridgeshire, a huge nursery specialising in trees.

“We send someone to look at the trees we’re buying – it’s all very carefully thought-out,” says David Wain, the council’s environmental technical officer.

And it’s all crucial work. Trees are essential for maintaining healthy air quality and also, aesthetically, they soften the otherwise harsh landscape of a post industrial city.

“We all love trees,” says Darren. “That’s why we do this job.”