Following a call from a "concerned resident" about plans to fell a tree in the grounds of a local school, a series of curious events unravelled.
Situated in the grounds of a small school, the tree is causing a problems because of the fears it will drop some of its timber onto unwitting children going about their bean bag races and other lawful activities (provided competative sports have not been banned).
Tree surgeons have visited and pronounced this to be a terminal case as the tree has honey fungus (the arboricultural equivalent of athletes foot?). The verdict is that it must go, thereby removing the danger but coincidentally robbing the pupils of a fantastic part of their local heritage.
The school is the oldest in Northumberland, built around 1865 and the tree was in its old age at that time. At approx. 80ft tall, it is a fine specimen and probably 250-300 years old. As a veteran tree, its is therefore entirely worthy of protection in its own right. Add to this the biodiversity value of a tree of this nature, with rot holes, gnarled bark and lots of nooks and crannies to be filled by a range of wildlife and we are faced with a dilemma.
But the crying shame is that this is probably a BLACK POPLAR, one of the UK's rarest trees and something virtually unrecorded in Northumberland. Only one other is listed in the county Flora and the veracity of that may be doubtful.
The problem with Black Poplar is that they are VERY VERY hard to identify. As with many of this genus, hybrids occur and true individuals are hard to pin down. But I have a secret weapon in this way - DNA profiling! Getting some leaf material will allow us to look at its genetic fingerprint in a way that will be definitive.
Thus I eventually found myself in the beautiful village of Acklington on a mission to visit the tree and to see what could be done to conserve the species, but if possible the specimen itself.
Firstly - what a tree - huge, gnarly and imposing. Secondly, the school don't want to see it go really and are actively looking into more land to replace that lost in preserving such a worthy specimen (I now have somewhere to send all my Sainsbury's School Vouchers as a gesture of appreciation). Thirdly, it looks really well to me!!
|Gnarly old bugger!! (30cm rule in centre)|
Accepting one large and unruly branch, snaking over the playing field, the tree does what it should in that it will occasionally lose twigs, particularly in windy weather. But there is no obvious and major rot or damage other than this "superbranch" which suggests that some prudent amputation may save the patient rather than the proposed terminantion.
|Superbranch - for the chop?|
Honey fungus is a fact of life for most trees, they live with it all of the time and it often only becomes a major issue when they are stressed for other reasons. The tree outside my house, for instance, which hides my nakedness from neighbours (phew!), has it. But unless Virgin Media chew up the roots when trenching for cable TV in the area or some other damage occurs, the tree will live with honey fungus, even though it may be the final nemesis.
So plans to cut it down may be premature although some pruning and even pollarding may be worth considering, even if the school succeed in securing alternative sporting facilities on a nearby field.
As a safety net though, I returned home armed with a bagful of hardwood cuttings, many of which are installed in a small plot in my garden, a few pots and also into water to encourage some rooting. As soon as some of the tight little buds start to spring open, leaf material will be taken for the DNA test and then it will all get REALLY interesting.
As a footnote, its worth adding that Her Majesties Prison's at Acklington and Castington have both offered to help propagate cuttings in their nurseries. What a fantastic project that will be when we get it going. They are a superb partner with real commitment to progressing nature conservation as well as putting something back into the community.
As a further footnote - the school REALLY do want to save this tree and I am sure that the local authority do as well but in the latter case there are lots of conflicting pressures that make this a very interesting case.