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Sheffield Journal: Toxic Tea, ‘Bunnying’ and ‘Geckoing’: A U.K. City Fights for Its Trees

Sheffield Journal: Toxic Tea, ‘Bunnying’ and ‘Geckoing’: A U.K. City Fights for Its Trees

“They mentioned laxatives,” she added, referring to the two detectives who had questioned her. “I said, ‘We don’t have any laxatives in this house, we are vegetarian and we have got no need for them.’ ”


Chris Rust, the co-chairman of Sheffield Tree Action Groups, and Sue Unwin, who was accused of offering workers refreshments spiked with laxatives.

José Sarmento Matos for The New York Times

Removing trees is just one part of a $3 billion, 25-year contract for a highway and sidewalk maintenance project in Sheffield that some believe is years overdue.

Many trees planted more than a century ago are coming to the end of their expected lives and are being replaced by saplings, while the roots of others are cracking sidewalks and damaging property, said Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for the environment at Sheffield City Council. “We are only doing what our Victorian forefathers did,” he added.

But many Sheffield residents, like Chris Rust, co-chairman of Sheffield Tree Action Groups, see the project quite differently, saying that while they have no problem with cutting down some dying trees, the plans are indiscriminate and “an assault on where we live and our living conditions.”

For now, the Teagate trail seems to have gone cold. Ms. Unwin, who thinks the episode was designed to discredit protesters, said she had been told by her lawyer that there would be no further action against her or her husband.

But Darren Butt, account director for Amey, the company doing the maintenance work, said the incident was a sign of an increasingly lawless protest.

“Teagate is genuine, I can guarantee it’s genuine,” he said, adding that he was not accusing any individual, but that the three victims had been ill enough with stomach problems to stay off work for more than a day.


Defenders of Sheffield’s plan to remove 6,000 trees say that roots crack sidewalks and damage property.

José Sarmento Matos for The New York Times

Despite the opposition to the project — and even the intervention of Britain’s secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, who described the felling program as “bonkers,” — around 5,700 of the targeted trees have been cut down. The remaining 300 are those that protesters have worked hardest to protect.

Matters were complicated by the fact that Amey is a private company. That fueled campaigners’ suspicions that the trees were being cut to simplify maintenance work and make it as economical as possible. Some also wondered if the contract limited Amey’s discretion to negotiate alternative solutions to felling, because the company might be sued if it failed to complete agreed work.

The accusations are denied by Amey and by Sheffield City Council, but the contract has been published only in redacted form, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. In total, it allows for up to 17,500 trees to be felled over the full 25-year period, though the council argues that this is not a target and that the figure is merely intended to cover the most extreme scenario.

Officials say the trees scheduled to be felled are dead, dying, diseased, decaying or causing problems like buckled sidewalks. They emphasized that the lost trees would be replaced with saplings and that most residents supported the work.

None of that has placated the tree lovers. Across the city, yellow ribbons flutter from trunks, and one elm is festooned with flags, decorations and even a Valentine’s Day poem (“Will you be my Valentine/ As I await my Council killers/ In patient Trepidation,” it starts.)

Thought to be about 120 years old, that elm has won a stay of execution, but only because it is home to a rare species of butterfly, the white-letter hairstreak.


Trimming trees in Sheffield in February. When workers arrive to chop down a tree, protesters use a variety of techniques to stop them, but the basic idea is to get too close to allow the felling to be done in safety.

José Sarmento Matos for The New York Times

When workers arrive to chop down a tree, protesters use a variety of techniques to stop them, including “bunnying,” hopping over barriers erected around targeted trees, and “geckoing,” standing next to garden walls and refusing to move. It’s not exactly tree-hugging, but the basic tactic is to get too close to allow the tree to be felled in safety.

Mr. Rust of the tree action group talks of a secret army, including “grannies on buses,” that keeps watch, enabling protesters to arrive only minutes after Amey’s workers.

Activists complain of being grappled, and the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who represented part of Sheffield until last year, once compared their treatment to that received by protesters in Russia.

Mr. Butt of Amey said that one of his security team had suffered a broken wrist, and that staff had been required to go on “conflict training” to learn how to defuse confrontations.

Now that his car is recognized, Mr. Butt’s movements are monitored and he often receives emails within minutes of arriving in a road asking why he is there. Mr. Lodge, of the city council, said that he had received pieces of shredded trees through the mail slot in his door and that he had been asked how safe he felt.

The tree fellers say they remain convinced that they are doing residents a favor.

“What you can see is a large number of trees causing damage, so why wouldn’t you take them out now, and replace them with new perfect trees for the location, and future generations will also see a beautiful majestic avenue of trees?” Mr. Butt said.


Darren Butt of Amey, the company contracted to carry out the tree work, said staff members had been required to go on “conflict training” to learn how to defuse confrontations with campaigners.

José Sarmento Matos for The New York Times

But campaigners say that most of the trees are free of problems. They promised to continue the resistance.

Gordon Ashall, an 87-year-old retired bus driver, pointed to one lime tree he saved by refusing to move from a fence near the house he has lived in since 1955.

“I wouldn’t let them move me from the railings, and they decided that I am an old man and it might be dangerous to remove me forcefully,” said Mr. Ashall, who added that he would risk jail to save the trees.

So would his wife, Maureen, 83, a retired bus conductor.

“We stand out in the freezing weather, we’ve been covered in hail stones, wet, cold, we’ve been up at night,” she said, adding,“I think they believed we would get tired and sit in our kitchen, but the opposite happened.”

Further down the street, however, Ian Hutchinson, 63, who is currently unemployed, asked what the protesters would do “when the roots of the trees fracture a water main or electric, gas or telephone — they’ll be complaining to the council.”

“Take them down,” he said, referring to the trees. He added that, although it was “a shame” to fell living trees, one was causing subsidence and cracking the walls of his house.

Both sides are tensed for a showdown. Last summer, the City Council won an injunction to prevent protesters bunnying or geckoing, and in November, Amey brought in an 18-strong security team to guard “safety zones” constructed around trees being felled.

Ms. Unwin, the architect, said she was more determined than ever to protect the trees, no matter what countermeasures Amey or anyone else might take.

“There is nothing special about this street, it’s a conglomeration of architectural styles, and the trees just tie it all together,” she said.

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