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The Legacy of the Sycamore Gap

3, October 2023

Trust In the Trees: The Legacy of the Sycamore Gap

Last Thursday, news broke that Northumberland’s Sycamore Gap tree had been felled overnight. And people were devastated.

The Sycamore Gap was iconic. Some say it was 300 years old, whilst others believe it was planted in the late 1800s. However many seasons it saw (and bore), the much-loved natural landmark had been around for a very long time. The tree's location, in a natural dip in the landscape beside Hadrian’s Wall, made it one of the most-photographed trees in the UK.

A Tree with Meaning

The sycamore was made famous by the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and in 2016 it won England’s Tree of the Year competition. As is common with beauty spots, it held great sentimental value to many. Since it was felled, people have shared their precious memories connected to the tree, and spoken about what it meant to them.

What we have seen is a mass outpouring of grief, for a tree. Could the sad and unnecessary loss of this single sycamore serve as a reminder of the preciousness – and precarity – of Nature in all its forms?

We Love Our Trees

Whilst the fact that the tree was felled in the first place shows a terrible disregard for our natural world, the response to its felling has revealed a collective love for Nature – in particular our trees.

As Paul Powlesland, Head of Legal at Lawyers for Nature (whose Head of Research, Brontie Ansell, represents Nature on our board) wrote on X (formerly Twitter):

“The outpouring of grief, sadness & anger about the felling of Sycamore Gap Tree shows the strength of love & care many British people feel for our trees.”

The Sycamore Gap tree is being mourned so widely because of its spectacular location, and the fact that many encountered it when walking Hadiran’s Wall. But each and every tree has a great deal to offer human beings: they store carbon, clean the air, house wildlife and connect us to Nature in a way that is good for our health.

Yet every day, all over the world, too many trees are slain.

Legal Rights for Trees

Legal Rights for Trees

Powlesland compares the legislation around tree preservation to that around listed buildings:

“The TPO [Tree Preservation Orders] regime is significantly less robust & protecting of trees than the Listed Building or Scheduled Ancient Monument regimes. This seems to reflect an anthropocentric view where something made or built by humans is intrinsically more valuable than something produced by nature.”

Indeed, the whole basis of the Rights of Nature movement is to challenge the anthropocentric stance that sees humans as more important than, rather than an intrinsic part of, Nature.

Although the Sycamore Gap tree should absolutely still be standing, perhaps it will become an emblem of the trees we can still save.

Sign the Petition

The Woodland Trust’s ‘Living Legends’ campaign is lobbying for better legal protection for ‘The UK’s most special trees’, which the conservation charity also describes as ‘national treasures’. You can sign and share their petition here.

It’s been reported that new shoots may grow from the stump left behind at Sycamore Gap. Others have suggested some sort of memorial in its place. Whatever happens, nothing can bring back that magnificent tree. But one positive thing that can come out of the story is a renewed appreciation for our trees and the hope, going forward, that many more will be saved – in the UK and all over the world.