Ali Schofield can’t see the wood for the motorway services

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I wouldn’t be here without trees. I mean that literally; none of us would. That’s one of the earliest lessons we learn, isn’t it? Trees absorb carbon dioxide, turn it into oxygen, keep us alive – brilliant. Thanks, trees!

I didn’t need much more convincing as a kid that trees were brilliant. I grew up opposite a wood and spent ages knocking about in there, watching squirrels tightrope along branches and funny little half-mouse, half-chameleon birds I learned were treecreepers darting up gnarly trunks looking for insects (if I make it all sound rather too Enid Blyton, I assure you that like any good wood in the 80s it was approached via one Dog Poo Alley).

Where some might be drawn to the sea, moors or mountains – or shopping centres, to each their own – my happy place has always been woodlands. I even witnessed this morning’s sunrise in my local one. But enough mooning; the simple fact is trees are life and as carbon dioxide levels reach record highs and the tree-dwelling, pollinating animals we rely on for food production face decline, we might never have needed them more.

So to mark the 800th anniversary this month of the 1217 Charter of the Forest, which gave ordinary folk access to royal forests, the Woodland Trust and other conservation organisations have launched a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People.

Britain boasts more ancient trees than any other country in Europe and yet we’re one of the least wooded. You’d think we’d be protecting what we have left with our lives but there are plans afoot to destroy masses of ancient woodland over the next few years. We’re just piling up the reasons for the rest of Europe to look over and wonder what the hell we’re playing at, aren’t we?

Our ancient woodlands are irreplaceable. Yes literally, irreplaceable. An ancient woodland is any which has existed since 1600 or before in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 1750 for Scotland. Some are even thought to be ruins of the original wildwood which covered the UK 10,000 years ago. Their soil has never been modified by modern agriculture or industry. Completely unique layers of leaf litter, dormant seeds and the like, maintained by invertebrates, fungi and mosses, provide rich carbon stores even beyond the natural life of the trees above. You can’t just plant a few trees, wait 400 years, and hey presto ancient woodland. If we destroy them, they’re gone.

So there must be a bloody good reason to start fannying about with ancient woodland, right? Drum roll please… a motorway service station! What, no applause?

Big companies are vying to do away with the at least 700-year-old Smithy Wood in Sheffield in order to pave paradise and put up a parking lot for all those polluting vehicles. Elsewhere in the city, important street trees are being hacked down even where upset locals find cheaper, better street management options, thanks to a private finance initiative (PFI). Dystopia isn’t reserved just for Sheffield though.

The government has sentenced hundreds of ancient trees to destruction to build HS2. Many of these aren’t even on the route, they just get in the way of the developers’ access to the building sites.

There’s still time to stop it and, let’s face it, we owe it to ourselves to try – sign the Charter, write to MPs. Just don’t go tell it to the trees.

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