Tree protesters take on the might of Tesco

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The Independent Online

Oliver Carter is 40ft up and firmly ensconced in his tarpaulin tree home. He shows no sign of moving somewhere more comfortable - despite the snow and a court order authorising his immediate removal.

The 20 or so protesters perched high up in giant Scots pines, oaks and sycamores, or digging tunnels through the earth below, are preparing for the moment bailiffs try just that. Because this muddy, brambled copse in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, wedged between a disused shoe factory and an industrial estate, is the latest front in the battle against Tesco's seemingly relentless expansion.

What started as a one-man eco-war against the supermarket's controversial plan to build a new store has quickly sucked in other radical conservationists.

Tesco's contractors were supposed to start tree-felling last weekend but were prevented by Mr Carter's campaign. The 24-year-old vertigo sufferer built his makeshift tree-house on the redevelopment site two Saturdays ago. Bar a day attending the High Court in London, when a judge ordered his removal from the site, he has remained there ever since.

The publicity generated by his solo stunt is attracting protesters with experience of fighting the Newbury bypass construction in the 1990s. Trench-diggers are shovelling dirt behind the wooden palette barricades, while teams of tree-climbers tie rope walkways between trunks.

The tree-squatters are furious at the supermarket's determination to turn the copse into a car park, servicing a superstore, petrol station, restaurant, shop units and 70 houses. Older locals are upset at plans to move the town's war memorial to make room for heavy vehicle traffic. About 1,700 signed a protest petition.

"I have been here two weeks and I am not going anywhere. They will have to drag us from these branches," said Mr Carter.

He said he objected to Tesco's "redevelopment" because it included cutting down 200 old trees, and would bankrupt local businesses. "We have got one Tesco just outside town and there are already empty shops in Shepton," he said. "This will make that worse."

Nick, a 28-year-old social worker who did not want to give his last name, was concreting metal tubing into the ground so that squatters could handcuff themselves underground. "More and more people are turning up," he said. "I think this will last for weeks, at least."

Above him, Bryan Holder, 33, shimmied up the largest trunk of all. "When they arrive, I'm going straight up the rope," he said. "Even if they send their own climber up I'll just go higher and higher until the branches are too thin for them to follow. I've got provisions to last a week."

Other camp residents seemed more mellow. "The trees are the lungs of the planet," said a man with long hair who identified himself only as the Joint Chief of the Outer Order of Druids (Exmoor). "This isn't about Tesco. This is about the symbiotic relationship between trees and humans and how it is being ignored."

A spokeswoman for Tesco said the chain did not want to comment on the fate of the tree-squatters, or how soon an eviction attempt would be made. She insisted that "the vast majority of local residents" wanted the new store and said that Tesco would replace the trees it cut down.

Tescopoly, a group of local shopkeepers, unions and environmentalists, accuses Tesco of using its mighty resources to crush local objections. Tesco owns an estimated 185 potential sites for new stores - almost 60 of which have planning permission for development.

Charles Uzzell, business manager for planning and environment at Mendip District Council, said the town was "in need of vital regeneration". Moving Tesco from the outskirts to the top of the high street would draw more visitors to other shops, he thought.

Some locals welcomed the chance to buy cheaper groceries. "These people in trees are a bunch of bloody idiots," said Tony Wolff, 65, who works 30ft from what would be Tesco's back gate. "A new store would be fantastic for the town: more jobs, more business. Anything has to be better than staring at this old dump."