“Minutes to cut down and centuries to grow back, if it ever does,” is the devastating verdict of experts on the iconic Sycamore Gap tree after it was felled.
With police believing it to be a deliberate act of vandalism, the chainsaw-cutting down of the world-famous tree next to Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland, has triggered widespread outrage and sorrow.
Northumbria Police launched an investigation on Thursday after the majestic Sycamore Gap tree, thought to be around 300 years old, was cut down overnight. The force arrested a 16-year-old boy in connection with the incident but has since released him on bail.
A man in his sixties was arrested on Friday evening. He remains in police custody.
As the force’s inquiries continued on Friday, questions remained over the ancient tree’s felling and future.
Mark Feather, UK estate manager for conservation charity The Woodland Trust, told of his upset as he said the Sycamore Gap tree took “minutes to cut down and literally centuries to grow back”.
He said one person with some prior experience and a chainsaw could have “easily” chopped the tree down within 10 minutes – while in such harsh, rocky and exposed conditions, which slow down growth, the Sycamore Gap tree could take up to 200 years to reach a similar size to what it was a few days ago.
He added that even though there is a “chance” of regrowth, this is not guaranteed, especially because of the great age and size of the tree. “Hopefully it will,” he said. “But this is not a given certainty. Time will tell.”
Then, if the Sycamore Gap tree does succeed in resprouting, he said it is “unlikely” it would return to its former statuesque shape, and would instead probably become a “bushy tree with multiple stems at the base”.
Jon Stokes, director of Trees, Science and Research at The Tree Council, explained that this sprouting of many stems, which is called coppicing, is the essential first step of regrowth and will begin to happen in spring if the tree had managed to store enough energy in its roots over autumn before it was cut down. “It is very difficult to know for certain whether the tree will survive until next spring but we really have to have hope,” he said.
However, he added, “It may take many decades to be a mature tree, and it will be a different shape. It could still grow to be something impressive, but it’s never going to regain that original shape – such an iconic and beautifully shaped tree – and that’s sad.”
Mr Stokes offered a sliver of optimism when he said there is the possibility one strong stem could be nurtured while the others are removed and that this could “in theory grow to something vaguely like what it looked like before if managed carefully”. However, he said this could take up to a century – during which time “a lot could go wrong”. “We can try setting it on the journey for our children and grandchildren though,” he said.
The experts suggested the owners of the Sycamore Gap tree should gather and plant its seeds, so that at least its offspring may live on.
Then, the advice was to fence off the trees from all animals, including humans, to give them their best chance at survival.
John Parker, chief executive officer at The Arboricultural Association, agreed that regrowth could be possible if the tree is “left alone”. However, he added: “I personally find it hard to imagine that a tree of that age and size will ever get back to what it was. It may be that we see a more shrubby tree left. It might grow to a half-decent height, but it won’t grow to that form.”
He spoke of finding the loss of such an “important” tree “absolutely horrible”, and felt his personal feelings were echoed by the outcry from the public.
The tree’s destruction prompted an outpouring of anger and sorrow from MPs, campaigners and the public alike. Shadow security minister Dan Jarvis described the tree’s felling as a “senseless act of vandalism” and told of his hopes the culprit is caught, while the conservation charity Woodland Trust wrote of their devastation at the “truly irreplaceable loss” in a post retweeted by naturalist Chris Packham.
Sycamore Gap tree was made famous by actor Kevin Costner when it appeared in his 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and was voted English Tree of the Year in 2016 in the Woodland Trust’s awards. It has become one of the most photographed trees in the UK.
Mr Stokes told of his own heartbreak and said the loss would “impact people for decades”. He said: “These things are more than just a tree – people have proposed under it, scattered ashes under it, its part of the local area, its a waypoint. The tree has embedded itself into people’s lives.”
All three experts agreed it was most likely one person and a chainsaw chopped down the tree in a matter of minutes. Although, if done properly and safely, felling a tree takes far longer, they said.
The consensus was that this was not done by a professional arborist but also not by a complete amateur.
Mr Parker said, “Somebody has cut that tree down who knows how to cut a tree down. But this isn’t a professional piece of work – it’s just someone trying to get a tree down for a reason known only to them at this stage. This just looks like vandalism of some sort.”
Both Mr Parker and Mr Feather agreed that the white paint marking, which can be seen in pictures circling the area of the Sycamore Gap tree’s trunk, is a red herring, as professionals do not need to mark up a tree before cutting it down. Mr Feather suggested someone more amateur, but who nonetheless had enough experience to know of the possibility of marking up a tree, could have used the paint.
Another reason for his theory that the vandal was a semi-skilled amateur is the way the tree was chopped, he said. He described cuttings that looked “sloped and slanted” in images, which suggested less expert knowledge. However, the way the tree was chopped, including the addition of a hinge cut, suggested some experience. “By looking at the pictures the person looks reasonably competent but not a true professional,” he said.
Mr Parker added that tree vandalism happens frequently across the country. “This is a very notable and public example of what we’re dealing with all of the time, the damage that can be inflicted by someone in a relatively short space of time after decades of care,” he said. “Trees are at threat across the country.”