We tend to have a protective approach towards our national monuments and brag about their UNESCO status. But are all monuments taken with the same consideration? Those magnificent old buildings such as the Binnenhof in Den Haag or the Canals of Amsterdam take the lead for sure. Whoever thinks of trees when thinking of national monuments is probably infected with the same virus as me. Generally, a centenary tree is not been seen as a monument but simply as an old tree. This means that the value of an old tree is often underestimated. It is extremely sad to see that monumental trees are threatened in their existence. Wouldn’t it be way better to Let Trees Live?

Current tree safety strategy is in conflict with tree conservation

Tree owners have a legal responsibility, so called duty of care, to manage the potential risks that a tree might pose to its surroundings. This is translated into practice with the use of a tree safety check system carried out by early stage tree specialists with a variable frequency. They evaluate the status of trees using a risk classification method and eventually assign a specific management action with its corresponding urgency when needed. It is up to the tree owner to follow the specified actions in one way or another. This can be a follow-up check with a higher inspection frequency, a closer examination, an intervention such as a pruning measure or in the worst of the cases, the removal of the tree. The presence of a fruiting body of a fungus is often a reason for such measure. All trees live associated to fungi, and in old trees the chance of developing fruiting bodies on the trunk and branches increases with age. The fungi world is incredibly complex and broad. Even mycologists, experts in the matter, find that there is still more to discover than already learned from them. This fact is directly in conflict with the management of old trees with fruiting bodies, as they are often victims of misdiagnosis. I still get angry about the disappearance of this 151-year old monumental beech just because of the presence of fruiting bodies. Unfortunately, this sort of events happen more than we wished. There is still an ongoing fight to win here, and the collective thought of Let Trees Live is missing.

Old beech with fruiting bodies

Profile of tree care companies

It is striking to see how many tree care companies promote themselves by showing how they fell trees. It is quite common to come across articles, both in company websites and on Linkedin, praising the tough job of removing large trees. I would find it more inspiring if they would give more visibility to projects in which efforts towards tree conservation are central. I am sure your future grandchildren would rather listen to stories where you tried to save the precious life of a tree they still can see and enjoy. Rather than showing the empty space of the felled tree pointed out with your white, lost sensibility fingers due to intense chainsaw action you carried out 50 years ago by cutting trees down. Professionals in the tree sector still need awareness of the social aspect of Let Trees Live.


Average age of the city tree

The current rotation cycle of urban trees does not correspond to their potential lifespan. Technically, small size trees, such as cherry trees, can live up to 80 years; medium size trees, such as birch, sometimes reach the 120 years; and large size trees, such as linden and oak, grow hundreds if not more than a thousand years. The prerequisite to achieve such long lifespans is that they are minimally disturbed. Basically by keeping your hands in the pocket and staying away from them as much as possible.

Current causes of early tree removal in the urban environment are often due to a deficient growing site design. This results in added root pressure, poor growing conditions and, as a consequence, a low performance of the tree in the environment. In the Netherlands, we can also talk about the many soil types that indirectly hamper the growth of trees on the long run. Let’s consider a peat subsoil in a residential area. It may well be that every 10 years the entire public space has to be raised by 30 cm. This is because roads, streetlights and trees sink due to the instability of the organic peat subsoil, but the houses remain stable at the same level because they are built on piles and not directly in the soil. In fact, not only in the Netherlands but in all urban environments there's the added pressure of the constant infrastructure renovations; the sewage system replacement every 40 years, the installation of cable-TV in the 90s and now the fiber-optic cable, among others. Everything has to fit underground.  This disturbance leads to a short rotation cycle of urban trees due to root damage and growth site reduction. Trees are not nearly as dynamic as the environment they are in. I think that if a tree could relocate itself, it would have run out of town long ago!

Looking at the municipal tree data, we observe that there are only a few municipalities with more than 10% of trees older than 60 years  . In fact, many municipalities have such a young tree population that only 2%, or even less, is older than 60 years. It is extra wry that centenary tree monuments have no nationale legal protection and completely depend on local regulations to be protected. This is disappointing and completely in conflict with Let Trees Live.


The Netherlands can do better when conserving old trees

‘Nederland kan het weer, die VOC mentaliteit, over grenzen heen kijken, dynamiek…toch? (The Netherlands can do it again, that VOC mentality, thinking beyond borders, dynamic… right?) This is something our former prime minister Jan-Peter Balkende brayed like a donkey when the urge to innovate was considerably hindered.

For better or for worse, the Netherlands still wants to be at the forefront of development. This is often not in line with the conservation of trees, in particular with the preservation of old trees. Fortunately, we do have a volunteer-based national tree foundation, the Bomenstichting, which promotes the awareness and provides care for our national monumental trees. This is necessary due to the absence of our national government in this. Funds on which owners of monumental trees can rely are rarely found.  At the municipal level, monumental and valuable tree lists are or have been regularly developed, but this is usually a by-product of an simplified felling permit policy. When drawing up such monumental tree lists, one often has to explain to the owners of the tree why there are no compensatory resources for the social importance of the recorded tree. For me, an example of undervaluation of a monument is the nationally known monumental oak on the Verwolde Estate in Laren. There is a collection box under the tree with the following text: 'Deposit your gift in my 'mouth' and we will keep the 'Thick Tree' as healthy as possible'. A tree that dates back to the VOC period is begging money to keep alive, which degrades the tree to a bum.

Innovation is part of our culture. Over time, land consolidation in the Netherlands has led to an incredible impoverishment of the cultural landscape. Old trees and hedgerows have disappeared and have been compensated with secluded tiny shame forests that in no way do justice to the lost heritage. Even when people move out and new owners move in, there is often no mentality of maintaining the already existing trees in the garden. The gardener easily starts over from scratch by erasing all the trees, and comes back with the latest tendencies in garden design and species selection. Understanding the value and role of the tree is missing: Let Trees Live!


A small boost to awareness: The National Trees Top 50

I am the director of Terra Nostra, a consultancy and knowledge centre for trees and soils, and together with tree carte company the Nationale Bomenbank we belong to the same tree specialists group. We are sister companies that operate independently from each other with the same mission: 'With trees we contribute to a liveable city'. Now the Nationale Bomenbank has something to celebrate. This year, 2022, it will turn 50 years old and this should be celebrated. Nationale Bomenbank has kept its tree care activities from the very beginning and is still a national leading company in the sector. What is appropriate to celebrate the anniversary? Something that has social value. Something to do with trees. Something that symbolizes what we stand for. Exactly: Let Trees Live!

For this reason, the National Trees Top 50 campaign has been launched. An initiative where every Dutch citizen interested in trees can nominate their favourite on the DeNationaleBomenTop50.nl site. Since every tree has a story, we also want to discover the story of the nominated trees. Once the voting is finalized, the best tree will be elected. The participants must motivate their network to vote their tree in order to get this tree in the National Trees Top 50. A Top 5 will be selected from this Top 50 by a leading professional jury on the basis of predetermined criteria.

The trees in the Top 5 will receive free lifelong care with the aim of lifelong preservation of the tree. Terra Nostra will inventory and examine those trees in order to identify the best management practices and the Nationale Bomenbank will provide the best tree care services. This is a small action to stimulate the awareness that trees and especially old trees are important.

Are you thinking of pruning trees or clearing the road profile so that traffic can pass underneath by lifelong preservation? That is still possible, but probably the best management to achieve a lifetime preservation of the tree is to protect the growing site, convert it into a forest floor and step aside for the rest. Sometimes no action is the best action. Preserving old trees means you understand what a tree needs to grow old. This often means removing human influence. Pruning can sometimes also help, but usually there is a strong human need behind and it does not always contribute to the tree's needs. Yes, the trees in the Top 5 might also be pruned given that this aligns with the long-term management plan and contributes to the preservation of the tree. The safety of the surrounding environment will  certainly be taken into account, but this goes beyond occasional dead branches. Only this way can we Let Trees Live!

Check how we raise awareness of old trees at: www.denationalebomentop50.nl 

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