Trust's chain-saw massacre

Michael Leapman visits Wellingtonia Avenue
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IT TAKES just 20 seconds for Charlie Talbot's chain-saw to slice through the 3ft trunk of an 80ft pine tree that has been growing for 140 years. The trunk rocks precariously, then thuds to the ground in a spray of twigs and needles.

It is one of nearly 100 Austrian pines, deodar cedars and red chestnuts that by the end of this week will have been cleared from the historic Wellingtonia Avenue planted in the 1850s at Biddulph Grange, near Stoke- on-Trent. Their removal will enable the completion of the most ambitious landscape restoration project undertaken by the National Trust. And there is not a protester in sight.

Cutting down ancient trees is fraught with emotion. This month, Prince Philip and thecommissioners of the Crown Estate were forced to stop felling 250-year-old oaks in Windsor Great Park after they were "occupied" by conservationists.

Bill Malecki, head gardener at Biddulph Grange, counts himself lucky not to have been similarly assailed. "We were concerned that people would link our project with the Windsor avenue," he said last week. "Ours is a younger avenue but it's reached the end of its life earlier." Several of the trees had already died of natural causes.

Fearing protests, the National Trust has been wary of publicising the project, although a notice-board in the garden explains that next spring a new avenue will be planted, conforming to the original Victorian scheme.

Scores of saplings are being raised on the estate's nursery beds, along with hundreds of yews to recreate the hedge that used to line the avenue.

The trees that have been toppled by Mr Talbot and his son have less emotive pull than oaks. Still, some environmental campaigners said last week that, had they known earlier about the Biddulph felling, they might have protested.

"It's a betrayal of their custodianship of the landscape for everyone else," said Alan Goodman, of the National Urban Forestry Unit in Birmingham. "Some landscape architect wants to put something nice and neat there. They may want to leave something for the future but they're not actually doing anything for the present."

Sue Clifford, joint co-ordinator of the environmental charity Common Ground, said: "It's a very different thing watching a tree fall at the hand of nature and watching what seem to be quite healthy trees cut down to make a tidy run at something. I see why people become quite passionate about this.

"What meaning do these trees have for local people and to what extent have they been party to the decision-making? Trees aren't inert. One of the things that's been happening is that there's been a great fashion for going back to original plans and it's rather dangerous."

Although called Wellingtonia Avenue, there have been no Wellingtonias, or giant redwoods, in it for more than 100 years. When laid out by James Bateman in the 1850s it included 44 of the vigorous trees, which had just been introduced into Britain from California. They were planted alternately with 44 cedars, with the intention of removing the cedars when the redwoods grew bigger. Behind them were 44 chestnuts and 44 pines.

In 1871 Bateman sold Biddulph Grange to Robert Heath, a local coal-mine owner, who uprooted the redwoods and kept the cedars. "If the redwoods had been left they would by now have been solid, well-established trees," Mr Malecki observed.

The National Trust, which acquired the garden in 1988, will revert to the original scheme and take out the new cedars in about 20 years, to give the redwoods space to grow.

Robert Hudson, a gardener on the estate for 17 years, has mixed feelings about the trees: "I'll miss them but I suppose it's best to cut them down. You notice that over the years there is more and more dead wood."

Neither he nor anyone else involved in the project is likely to enjoy the full benefits, though. The Trust estimates that the new avenue will be looking at its best in 2075.

Biddulph Grange Garden is open Wednesday-Friday 12-6, Saturday and Sunday 11-6, until the end of October.