‘Horrified’: Devon village in shock at felling of 100 ancient beech trees

<span>Photograph: Fiona Carroll</span>
Photograph: Fiona Carroll

Not much happens in the sleepy village of Colaton Raleigh, where almost half of the residents are retired. So local walkers were horrified when they woke up one morning to an act of “environmental vandalism” that left behind the maimed stumps of 100 ancient beech trees.

Residents in the east Devon community are grieving the loss of the beloved trees, which were located in a special conservation area and site of special scientific interest, home to lots of local plants and animals, after they were felled by a government agency without consulting the community or council.

An application was made by a local landowner to the Forestry Commission, a branch of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It would not comment on individual cases, but said all decisions were taken in line with its standards.

Alan Pearce, a tree warden from the area, said: “It certainly ought to be a fairly wide consultation because it’s part of our heritage, grown-out hedges that go back hundreds of years. Once they’re gone you’re talking about 200 years to regrow. The stumps look nearly all of them perfectly sound and solid. I can’t see they can say they were diseased or dying. We’re meant to be planting trees, not felling them.”

He said people were “absolutely horrified”, with one walker in tears over the decision, which he suggested may have been taken in order to improve grazing land in the adjacent field.

Fiona Carroll, another resident, said: “Many people walk in this area as it is part of a large expanse of heathland and they are at a loss as to why this has been allowed to happen. These were, in my view, valuable landscape and wildlife trees situated along an extensive ancient Devon bank. The roots had grown into large supporting structures giving many a distinctive look. My current impression is that this destruction is nothing short of an act of environmental vandalism.”

Ewan Macdonald, who researches how people engage with the environment at the University of Oxford, said he was not surprised the felling had provoked such an emotional reaction because of the way people connected with trees.

“It highlights how intrinsically bound up things like trees, the environment and conservation are with our culture,” he said. “The value of trees gathers importance with age, so I can see why removing them is upsetting. It’s a natural thing that people form an attachment to things they can personify or build a relationship with.”

He added: “I do think it is always important to engage the local community with any decision that is made about conservation. That’s not to say that the Forestry Commission didn’t have good reasons for removing the trees, but communicating those reasons to people and making sure the community feels engaged and brought into that is an important thing. It shows it’s hard for anyone to own nature wholeheartedly.”

The beech felling is not the first to provoke ire. Most recently, the felling of 40 palm trees in Torquay in Devon that appeared in 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers prompted accusations the council had wrought “total destruction” on the seafront.

This followed a similar controversy when 110 trees were removed under cover of darkness in March 2023 in Plymouth as part of the relandscaping of the city’s Armada Way, ultimately leading to the resignation of the council’s Conservative leader.

And in 2016, five people were arrested in a bitter dispute with the council over tree felling in an affluent Sheffield suburb. Nick Clegg, then the constituency’s MP, described the incident as “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia, rather than a Sheffield suburb”.