Only a tiny bat can save these 200-year-old trees from the axe

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The leaves are starting to turn on the Rusland Beeches for probably the last time. One of the autumnal glories of southern Lakeland, the 200- year old stand of trees is due to be felled before the year's end.

With considerable reluctance, the Lake District National Park has decided that all 54 beeches should be felled. A study by Derek Patch, director of the Arboricultural Advisory and Information Service, found many to be in "a dangerous condition" and others to be in declining health.

But a vigorous locally-based campaign to save the beeches has been fought through the summer. Contrary opinions have been voiced by other tree specialists, and some 3,500 people have signed a "save the beeches" petition.

The most likely saviours at the moment are the noctule bats which inhabit at least seven of the trees. As a last resort campaigners are prepared to take to the tree tops. Felling is on hold until the park board has received the approval of English Nature about the bats, and of the Department of the Environment - which has the final word since the trees are covered by a preservation order.

Using a hydraulic lift and an instrument for looking round bends, park staff found the bats in five of the trees and tell-tale signs in two others. Not all the trees could be surveyed. The most populous roost contained 18 noctule bats. The noctule is one of the largest British species, weighing about one ounce. It is not common in Cumbria, and only about 10 roosts are known elsewhere in the county.

To compound the park's dilemma, the seven trees with bats are the very ones identified by Dr Patch as being the most dangerous - the bats have been homing in on the rotten wood. Neighbouring trees might also have to be spared as they form part of the micro-environment of the roosts. The beeches are on sloping ground beside a lane running up the Rusland Valley. Planted in the late 1700s, at around the time of the building of Rusland Hall, there were originally about 120 trees, but over the past 40 years decay has led to many being felled.

In the 1950s, the land was leased by the Friends of the Lake District to prevent it being sold to the timber-hungry forestry industry. Then in 1976 the lease, and the headache over the trees' future, passed to the park authority.

The AAIS survey concluded that 26 of the 54 remaining trees were sufficiently dangerous to require felling as soon as possible and that most of the others needed substantial surgery. But Marianne Bennett, co-ordinator of the Campaign to Save Rusland Beeches, said that the park had "over- reacted". She has recruited arboriculturalists who maintain that only a few trees need be felled.

"Any tree at the side of a road is a potential hazard. But the risk is very slight and it can be monitored," said Ms Bennett, a wildlife artist who lives 20-minutes' drive from the beeches, at Milnthorpe. "The beeches are an absolutely fantastic landscape feature and part of our heritage. We don't want to see the whole lot felled and if it comes to it there are people willing to sit up in the trees."

Ms Bennett is not impressed by the park's pounds 9,600 plan to replace the informal stand with an avenue of 120 new beeches. "They seem to want a national park which is all neat and tidy."

The board admit the decision has been "difficult". Officials are understood to be divided over wholesale felling, and work is continuing on alternative action. The Friends of the Lake District has, with a heavy heart, gone along with the park's judgement. But many of the charity's members will be quietly rooting for the bats.