Friday 29 September 2023

Thoughts on the Sycamore Gap tree and nature

The birch tree

The felling of the Sycamore Gap tree has resulted in an astonishing outpouring of shock, grief and anger. The story has been a lead item on television and radio news and in many newspapers. Social media has been awash with comments from just about every organisation and individual concerned with conservation and nature and many others as well. Most show concern and unhappiness this has happened, others point out that far worse occurs without such a reaction.

Like most people I felt shocked when I saw the pictures. I did see the actual tree once, many decades ago, but since then I have seen pictures many, many times. That makes it feel familiar and it’s felling creates a sense of loss. Others feeling and expressing the same reinforces the emotion.It makes me think of trees I know and love and how I would feel if they were cut down.

Looking out of my study and kitchen windows I can see a lone birch tree standing in a pile of stones from an old wall in the middle of a big field. I’ve seen that tree every day I’m at home for over thirty years. It really is familiar, a part of my life. I’ve photographed it many times over the years in every season and every type of weather. It is a fine tree. I like it very much. I would be shocked and sad if it was cut down. It wouldn’t cause a ripple in the outside world though. No-one apart from me and my family would know, let alone care.

The birch tree in a storm

Birds perch in it occasionally but it’s not really a tree for wildlife because of its location, in the middle of fields grazed by cows and sheep. It’s rough grazing and there are flowers amongst the grass and butterflies and other insects so it’s not a totally sterile or barren landscape. But any birch seedlings never make it far above ground.

Not far away, also visible from the house, is a thicket of young birches, dense and tangled and thriving. This has grown up in the last twenty years, since the farmer stopped bringing his beasts regularly up the track beside the area and they ate any tree seedlings.

The thicket

The birch thicket isn’t very big, but it is just large enough to go into and feel inside a wood, inside a place that is different to the world outside. In spring and summer it is full of exuberant life. The undergrowth is thick with flowers and grasses, insects buzz, birds sing. This is so different to the solitary birch in its field.

Yet I have never photographed this thicket until doing so for this piece. It doesn’t stand out; it doesn’t fit as an image of natural beauty. Walking round and through the little trees there’s no obvious viewpoint from which to admire them. It looks messy. It is messy. And that’s good as it’s that messiness that is brimming with life. Nature isn’t tidy.

The birch tree in a winter mist

The solitary birch is very photogenic. The shape is pleasingly symmetrical. It stands out against the sky. The Cairngorms form a distant backdrop. It is aesthetically satisfying. That matters in our appreciation of nature and landscape. It’s part of our culture. The Sycamore Gap tree is a perfect example of this. Standing between those lovely curving slopes, solitary and dramatic.

For the health of nature this doesn’t matter at all. The birch thicket is where life is burgeoning. Remover the domestic livestock and young birch would spring up around the lone tree but unless that happens it’s one ageing tree with no nearby offspring and no woodland community around it.

The Sycamore Gap tree is the same. There are no other trees. It will probably regrow, sprouting shoots from the stump. Sycamores are good at that. But it will still be a lone tree unless others join it and if they do the landscape will look different. Ecologically healthier but aesthetically probably not as immediately attractive. I think that is what should happen. If anything positive is to come out of the felling and the surge of emotions it has engendered I hope it is that more people campaign and work for more trees in Sycamore Gap and elsewhere, more messy thickets rich with life. That’s what we need.



  1. Well said, Chris. It seems to me a lot of the outrage is based on aesthetics rather than the harm done to the natural world (infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things). The day before we had a report highlighting the drastic extent of biodiversity loss in the UK (1 in 6 of all species potentially facing extinction) and I didn't see 1% of the shares on Facebook that the felling of the tree got.

  2. Agreed Chris (& Jon Sparks) - its only because it’s a celebrity tree - and that 10 million snappers can’t photograph it any more. It’s totally wrong that an ancient tree has been chopped, but I’m more shocked that one ‘photographic tree’ has created such an outpouring of grief when the annihilation of rainforests goes by without the same sorrow. There are trees being felled illegally locally and all over the place, and no one says or does anything. It’s only because this place is a honeypot for visitors.

  3. Absolutely Chris, and your point beautifully illustrated. The outcry understandable, such a savage, senseless act, but so anthropocentric, so about us and our relationship with the tree, not from the tree's perspective at all!
    Its extraordinary to think that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, that nearly 1 in 6 species are threatened by extinction, mitigation will only come from maintaining, restoring and protecting what is left of our precious native woodlands. A single tree is already a tree under attack, unntaural in nature.

  4. Nice piece if writing Chris, well observed. People like 'composed' landscapes of tidy shapes but nature thrives in messy diverse environments. As you point out the Sycamore gap tree will grow back as a bushy coppice. But I guess because of the publicity of this event and the need to protect the regrowth from grazing animals there will have to be some railings to guard it for some years. Won't be so photogenic any more but will probably live longer.