Tree Warden Story: A 26-year journey
In the first of a series of interviews with Tree Wardens from around the UK, we speak with Dick Walters, Eastleigh Tree Warden, Druid and volunteer coordinator for the Eastleigh Tree Partnership, about how a single event set him off on a 26-year journey into the heart of trees.
How and why did you become a Tree Warden?
It all started after the Great Storm of 1987, which took out so many trees. It was as though something had woken up inside me, a calling if you like. I wanted to replace some of the trees we had lost. I haven’t reached 15 million yet but I am up to 50 thousand and still going strong.
In 1989 I signed up to become an Eastleigh Tree Warden through The Tree Council’s Tree Warden Scheme. At the time the Tree Warden Network was coordinated locally by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. I did the basic courses in tree identification, planting and aftercare and trees and the law and I learnt all sorts of things like hedge laying and coppicing. It was a steep learning curve because up until then I wasn’t even a gardener and had no prior interest in conservation.
What have been your main Tree Warden roles and activities over the years?
Fortunately for me, Hounds Tree Nursery was on my patch so I got involved with caring for it. Gradually I took over the running of the nursery and we went from growing trees from bare rooted stock to growing a large number in root trainers. At one stage we were supplying around 1,000 trees a year to local communities, Tree Wardens and tree nurseries.
Besides running the nursery, which involved seed gathering, growing, planting and caring for trees, we always tried to hold events for The Tree Council’s Community Action programme throughout the year, including tree planting days for National Tree Week and woodland walks for Walk in the Woods month.
I also advised my local parish council on various tree matters. For example, if someone wanted to plant a tree on a burial ground I’d talk to them and make recommendations, and I’d get involved with local disputes over planning applications and things like that. I was a bit of a rebel in my younger days, not going quite as far as chaining myself to a tree but fighting to look after my patch.
For many years I worked alongside my friend and mentor, James Watson, who ran the Itchen Valley Countryside Project, which looked after conservation projects for Eastleigh. James gave me projects to do under my Tree Warden umbrella, including turning a rubbish tip into an ecology park. I also got involved in running various volunteer groups and since 2008 I have been the project manager of the Friends of Priors Hill Copse (FOPHC), which looks after a local ancient oak hill woodland.
Could you tell us more about your work at Priors Hill Copse?
After Itchen Valley Countryside Project disappeared, Priors Hill Copse was not coppiced for many years and had become totally overrun with holly. The Tree Wardens and other local groups and volunteers got together to see if we could save it, and so we formed the FOPHC. The chairman, Michael Presswell, was a fantastic fundraiser, and managed to get us £50,000 Heritage Lottery grant, which enabled us to complete six years of a 10-year management plan. We have now removed 90% of the holly from the wood and planted more oaks.
We are currently modifying the management plan as over the last few years we have not seen as much regeneration and regrowth of the copse that we would have liked. All you can put this down to is climate change and a degraded seed bank. The initial plan was to have nine coppice coups on a rotation but if we coppice one area there will be nothing for the wildlife to move onto. So now we are going back to what we call a ‘managed wildgrow’. We are going to highlight and preserve the ancient oaks and coppice the younger ones and allow anything to come up in the understory. We are also planting hazel as an experiment.
What made you decide to set up a website?
I had an accident in 1996; I fell off a ladder and badly damaged my ankle. After my accident I couldn’t do a lot of physical work and didn’t feel like I could just stand back and direct others. But I still felt I had to do something to help trees so I started thinking about recording all the tree growing knowledge I had learnt over the years.
James suggested I create a website. Well, I had no computer knowledge so I applied for a National Pioneers Award, which paid for computer training, a computer, a printer and the books I would need to enable me to get started.
Growingnative.co.uk was launched by TV presenter Chris Packham in 2000 at the Itchen Valley Country Park. The site chronicles the last 26 years of my life and supports local groups and The Tree Council’s projects. Last year I had to decide whether to keep the site or close it down because the software I was using had become outdated.
Thanks to the generosity of Hamble Yacht Services, fundraising by FOPHC and the help of Strawberry Marketing who now host the site, Growing Native has been given a complete revamp and a new lease of life.
In 2001 I had a below the knee amputation, which has improved my mobility, reduced the pain and allowed me to get back into a small amount of practical work.
How did the Eastleigh Tree Partnership come into being?
After Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust handed the reigns for the Eastleigh Tree Warden Network back to Eastleigh Borough Council, it became increasingly difficult for the Tree Officers to run the scheme. I felt something had to be done to stop the scheme collapsing so I held meetings with Eastleigh Borough Council, the FOPHC and the local branch of The Conservation Volunteers, and we decided, with the agreement of The Tree Council, to merge the Eastleigh Tree Wardens with the Friends of Priors Hill Copse, and two years ago, the Eastleigh Tree Partnership (ETP) was born.
Each of the parish councils in Eastleigh that have Tree Wardens agreed to pay £100 per year towards the scheme, which goes into the FOPHC bank. This covers the cost of The Tree Council’s membership, public liability insurance and TVC membership. I’m the volunteer coordinator for the ETP and the link between the Tree Wardens and The Tree Council. I organise work days and training days which the Tree Wardens and Friends come along to, while the individual Tree Wardens work with their local parish councils to look after trees on their patches.
What have been your proudest achievements as a Tree Warden?
For the first batch of oak trees we had coppiced in Priors Hill Copse we decided to make an event of it to engage with the local community so we went back to the traditional method of taking the logs off site by horse. That was a great moment. We used horses on two occasions and they went down a bomb.
Besides my achievements in Priors Hill Copse, my proudest moment was watching my first grandson plant his first tree at the age of two. That’s now been superseded by my third grandson who planted his first tree last year before he was two. My aim is to leave a legacy and get the youngsters involved in caring for trees; I hope they love the copse as much as I do.
And what have been the most challenging aspects?
Dealing with local authorities and parish councils has been the hardest thing as we don’t always see eye-to-eye. It’s also getting harder now to find volunteers than it was 15 years ago. Most of the Tree Wardens and regular Friends are my age and above and getting young blood is very difficult.
There is also a big concern around climate change and tree pests and diseases. The idea is to plant trees from locally sourced seed wherever possible to try and stop the spread of diseases and pests.
Why did you become a Druid? How does it fit in with your Tree Warden role?
Nearly eight years ago I took my feeling for trees to the next level and trained to be a Druid. Trees had got into my blood, you see. Being a Druid has given me a better love and understanding of trees. They are not just things growing in the ground; you can talk to trees and connect with nature through them.
We’ve all got a love of nature in us, and trees have a special meaning. I do my ceremonies in the garden with my grandchildren and they are fascinated. I set up the altar and pay my respects and give thanks to the tree gods. I’ve got five grandchildren and they each have their own spiritual birth trees in pots in the garden.
The yew is my spirit tree. It is the one I connect with the most. The tree finds you, not the other way round. There are two lovely specimens in my parish, next to a church. The yew tree is the most significant tree for me but oak trees at Priors Hill Copse are my everyday tree.
What’s life as a Tree Warden like nowadays?
These days, I do about seven hours of Eastleigh Tree Partnership work per week. It’ll be 26 years now that I have been a Tree Warden. I still get the same fascination when I see a seed germinate now as I did then. It has improved my gardening skills from a technical point of view, but not from a design point of view; I leave colour schemes to my wife!
I have set myself five more years with FOPHC so that I can hand over a management plan to the parish council that is not too costly or labour intensive when I finally step down. Then I can shed my mortal coil with relief. I look through my grandchildren’s eyes as it’ll be them who will benefit from all the hard work we have done.