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Sycamore Gap tree attack is part of war on nature in UK, says poet

The felling of the Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall symbolises a wider attack on nature in the UK, according to an award-winning landscape writer and poet.

Robert Macfarlane said the sight of the downed 300-year-old tree made him and many others feel sick. “I just see this as part of a piece with a much broader hostile environment towards the living world in this country,” he told the BBC.

A 16-year-old boy was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of causing criminal damage over the incident.

Robert Macfarlane. Photograph: Bryan Appleyard

Macfarlane, whose books include Landmarks, The Old Ways and The Wild Places, said: “Our focus really shouldn’t be on the offender here. I think it’s on the culture.”

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, he said the tree was cut down on the eve of the publication of the State of Nature report, which provides a benchmark for the status of the UK’s wildlife. “That report was disastrous – one in six species heading for possible extinction. Nature is under attack in these islands and has been for a long time.

“There’s a line by [the poet] WH Auden written 70 years ago. He says: ‘A culture is no better than its woods.’ Well we have not looked after our woods well. This is part of the broader war on nature.”

Macfarlane said the sycamore played many different roles to many people. “It was a film star – it starred in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. It was a tree that ashes were scattered under, marriages were made under, and it was a shelter for tired walkers. It stood in that gap in the wall, and it survived the winds that howl through that notch. It stood in a wall that was a symbol of repression really, but it flourished there. It was a landmark in the region.”

Macfarlane said there was also a “positive side” to the widespread disgust at the loss of the tree.

“What a response it has called out: grief, poems, paintings, drawings, photographs, stories, memories. How do we use that feeling, that strength of that feeling and turn it to the good?”

He said he hoped the incident would lead to greater protection for “venerable standard trees”. And he called for a new forest to be planted in its honour.

Macfarlane said: “The best way to remember the loss of the tree, I would say, is with the gain of the forest. We are drastically deforested, we have the second lowest forest cover in Europe. Let us reforest the uplands. Let us see a Sycamore Gap forest rise for the loss of a tree.”

The National Trust said there was hope that the Sycamore Gap tree could regrow from its stump.

The general manager, Andrew Poad, told BBC Breakfast: “It’s a very healthy tree, we can see that now, because of the condition of the stump, it may well regrow a coppice from the stump, and if we could nurture that then that might be one of the best outcomes, and then we keep the tree.”

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