Mind the Sycamore Gap

By:
Ross Bentley
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Very rarely does flora make the headlines but a few weeks ago the felling of a tree in Northumberland was the main topic of conversation across the land.

The sense of loss, shock and anger in the wake of Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall being reduced to simply a gap was overwhelming. People were at a loss to explain why someone had cut down this iconic 300-year-old tree, sitting magically in the bowl of a dip, photographed a thousand times, and a backdrop for movies, engagements and the scattering of ashes.

News pictures showed people congregating at the site where police tape had cordoned off the felled tree like a murder scene. Interestingly, specialist tree surgeons collected sawdust so they could match the DNA with any traces of wood chips stuck in the teeth of a suspect’s chainsaw.

All sorts of wacky conspiracy theories were expounded as to who had committed such a deed. A friend of mine said he thought the culprits might be climate protesters who wanted to show the world that trees were under threat by removing a landmark specimen. Fortunately, that appears not to be the case.

What we do know so far is that a 16-year-old boy and a farmer in his 60s have been arrested. It will be fascinating (or downright depressing) to find out what they say their motives were for what appears to be a staggering act of mindless vandalism.

Culture

In the days after the incident, the great and the good were rolled out for commentary. Leading nature writer Robert Macfarlane was interviewed by Radio 4 and said that rather than focus on the individuals who chopped the tree down, we should all examine our own culture, one where nature isn’t valued enough. He evoked W.H. Auden’s brilliant poem Bucolics, which contains the couplet: ‘The trees encountered on a country stroll/ Reveal a lot about a country’s soul’, and the stunning closing line: ‘A culture is no better than its woods’.

Last week, environmentalist George Monbiot was interviewed for a Guardian podcast where he opined that people were so troubled by the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree because for many the act was symbolic of the general threat the natural world faces from man’s activity.

Indeed, the tree was butchered a day before the publication of the 2023 important State of Nature report – a health check on how the UK's wildlife is faring, put together using wildlife data from over 60 conservation organisations. Of the 10,008 species assessed, the research found that an incredible 16% - that’s 1 in 6 - are now at risk of extinction.

Monbiot pointed out that the tree was solitary in the landscape because like the better-known national parks, like the Peaks and the Lake District, the uplands of Northumberland National Park are intensively farmed with sheep, who nibble away at any saplings that take root, giving them no chance of maturing.

Leaves

It is no surprise that if one tree was to make it in this harsh environment it would be a sycamore. The species, that was probably introduced to this country from central Europe sometime in the fifteenth century, is notorious for its ability to flourish anywhere. It does well in urban environments where it is able to deal with pollution, and is now an important tool in maintaining air quality.

Being a non-native tree it does not support a wide variety of wildlife but it does attract huge numbers of aphids, which are an important food source for birds like the house martin. These aphids and the honeydew they produce are responsible for the sticky mess on the bonnets and windscreens of cars parked underneath them. 

There are a few sycamores on the Common Lands and they are among the first trees to lose their leaves in autumn. I examined one at the weekend – it’s winged ‘helicopter’ seed pods all dried up and its leaves already brown and blotchy. The sycamore’s leaves are famous troublemakers, derided for making country walks mulchy and probably the ‘wrong kind of leaves’ on rail tracks that cause delays because trains slip on them.  

Legacy

So what happens next in the case of the Sycamore Gap tree? Some say the tree should be left to see it can grow again from its stump. Others would like to see a forest planted in its honour.

More generally, if any good is to come from this carve-up, it should act as an emblem around which nature lovers should gather to fight for the wild world. Let’s fill the ‘gap’ that has been left with positive support for rewilding projects and the promotion of wildlife on our own patch.

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