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Opinion & Analysis

Guardians of the Trees

Pic by Johnny Bugeja

by Jason Kurt Easter

“Time-honoured, beautiful, solemn and wise. Noble, sacred and ancient…” Anon

I titled this short article with a superhero flavour (replacing Galaxy for Trees), not because I’m a fiction author and writer, but to highlight that we should all be guardians to the trees. The quote above quote is both quaint and current - it is timeless and has circumnavigated the Internet. It is often attributed to two masters of rhythmical composition, William Wordsworth, and William Cooper’s “Yardley Oak” written in 1791. I like the quote because it is a grandiose opinion on the tree’s form and societal appreciation, and its longevity. It declares the majesty and essentialism of trees on our planet. However, we often overlook their pivotal function and planetary contribution, and their rights. Let’s first acknowledge their physiological importance and ecosystem services to the landscape and human society. They give us oxygen, store carbon, stabilise the soil and give life to the world’s wildlife. They also provide living organisms (that means us too) with food and materials for tools and shelter. Trees clean the air, purify water, help with storm-water drainage, and give us a link between the past, present and future — we simply can’t live without them.

Within society, it is “us” who are the decision makers, oath-bearers, fathers and mothers, and executioners to these majestic and overlooked gods. Without them, the earth would be a completely different surface, if at all in existence. If we don’t protect them, they won’t be able to protect us. So, we are their urban guardians, and it is us who should be honoured in reciprocating their vital efforts. As world population increases, it is now the time for us to really boost urban green investment.

I have read extensively on plant science. I have read arboriculture and urban forestry at postgraduate level because I wanted to learn more and become a voice, or better “guardian of the trees” especially in our urban habitat.

I have always had a passion for all areas of natural science. I have researched terrestrial isopods (woodlice), and found them to be extremely adept bio-indicators of soil health. I admit, I wanted to be a tree surgeon when I was younger (and a writer naturally), but as an acrophobic I took a different path in the direction of human health. Many years later, and when I began working in The Convent stewarding the garden, my interest and inquisition in arboriculture and forestry grew tenfold. But this is not about me. This is an article about raising awareness for a greater caring of our trees, and possibly a call to raise standards in tree care in Gibraltar so we can improve on our urban forest and green infrastructure. This will ensure much wider ecosystem benefits, and that includes human health and well-being. Gibraltar has huge potential to lead and set an example.

Many trees in Gibraltar’s urban landscape are performing poorly owing to various reasons: planting site selection, choice of species used, and simple maintenance. These are some severe factors that impact on tree performance. Climate change is a key stressor as warmer climates create pathways for invasive organisms, and this is a threat to our biosecurity. As an example, London Plane trees (Platanus × acerifolia) are used extensively in urban projects. They are a great hybridised species adaptable to most soil conditions, and a well-studied species towards soaking up air pollution. However, sourcing these trees for our landscape usually relies on stocks from Italy, France and Spain.

These countries are known to be heavily affected by Ceratocystis platani a canker disease. If we source from these affected countries, then it is inevitable the disease will eventually find its way to Gibraltar without tighter screening and importation procedures. But going a little further, what contingency plans are in place? Are plane trees monitored for this disease and another aggressive disease called Massaria? I’m not going to answer this question, but I think it highly unlikely. The London Tree Officers Association have great plans for this threat, and I think we should seriously adopt a similar approach.
We do have some majestic specimens in Gibraltar (like the veteran Phytolacca at Landport), and I cross my fingers every time I pass a great veteran tree hoping they will continue performing as well as they can.

In Gibraltar we unfortunately favour a “tree-planting” principle that focuses on amount rather than performance, but that is also a global issue. How many trees have we planted is a good way forward, but my question always goes further - how many trees have survived since planting, and how many trees receive effective after care and vital maintenance? Let’s be honest, importing trees uses machinery which release carbon, therefore capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide by the trees planted is minimal, in the short term. Green walls, green roofs, lawns and parks can omit just as much oxygen and store carbon. The greener the better in every sense of the phrase.

As Stefano Mancruso said in his book The Nation of Plants: “Use us [plants] better immediately! Cover your cities with plants, not just in parks, flower beds, roadsides, and on gardens and terraces, but by wrapping every possible surface in plants! We adapt much better and much faster than you do.”

Planting trees is a necessity but I do feel that we should be heading in the direction of a “tree-performance” policy that focuses on healthy trees which can eventually produce a full range of ecosystem benefits. I witness saplings that are topped, either through ill practice or imports from bad nursery stock. If a tree is topped because of its location, then maybe it was the wrong tree to select from the start. There is also post-planting mortality where trees of all ages suffer from simple watering and nutrition neglect, and thus are on a disadvantage from the very beginning. This will affect the trees future life performance and overall development. Soil conditions are often overlooked or not considered, the right tree for the right spot, as mentioned above, is seldom considered, and we need more qualified tree professionals on our trees to adhere to industry standards. Such standards include tree risk assessments using various systems like (TRAQ, QTRA, VALID, and THREATS) and various decay detection methods such as sonic tomography, ground penetrating radar (GPR), tree motion sensors, resistography, and tree pulling tests. Other standards in relation to trees include the BSI standards, one of the world’s largest certification bodies.

Adding to this, construction works do not adhere to other guidelines such as The National Joint Utilities group’s planting, installation, and maintenance of utility apparatus in proximity to trees. I have been shocked to witness a tree root zone (TRZ) not properly protected. I have witnessed works to improve footpaths with tree pits and tree root protection zones ignored, such as the severing of major roots and their fixing in cement. This causes a collapse in the trees hydraulic system, and will be responsible for tree death. I am not pointing fingers of blame, simply highlighting the knowledge and land-based skills we so desperately need to improve on globally, including Gibraltar. As well as the financial implications with planting a new tree, it is ultimately the tree that pays the price, and the knock-on effect is that an unhealthy landscape or ill tree does not benefit all organisms, including us.

Again, my intention is not to point fingers or catch anybody out, but simply raise awareness about increasing standards in arboricultural practice. I am merely a guardian speaking out to help improve and hopefully initiate a new wave of green commitment, and even the way we think about trees. We need an urban tree or green infrastructure strategy, a policy that develops from that strategy to raise the standards, educational engagement and outreach (e.g., Arbor Day), a dedicated arboricultural and urban forestry unit or team, and encouragement for scientific research in this area. A Tree Officer would be a wonderful start, and a comprehensive GIS map and database of our urban tree stock indispensable. If our trees receive the top evidenced-based and professional care they deserve, only then can they be given the best chance to thrive and lead a full life and potentially beyond ours. If they thrive, then so does the wider urban forest, and again that includes us. Then ecosystem services will provide the full range of benefits - shading for all organisms and creating a habitat for numerous other species, storm-water drainage, carbon sequestration, oxygen provision, removal of air pollutants, providing aesthetic and recreational benefits that includes our health and well-being - there is no time like the present. The climate crisis is real, and investment into raising the bar in looking after our trees will ultimately be pivotal for improving not just life in Gibraltar, but doing our part for life on earth.

Jason is an Independent Arboricultural Consultant.

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