The Tree Musketeers interview


Russell Miller of the Tree Musketeers

Can you start by telling us what Tree Musketeers do?
Yes, our catchphrase is ‘All for trees and trees for all’. We protect, preserve and care for trees in Hackney with emphasis on caring and protecting, because an awful lot of planting gets done particularly in urban areas, and just fails.

So how did it start and how long has it been going on, and were you involved in the beginning of it all?
I wasn’t involved in the very beginning, but we tend to trace our history back to 1998 when the council actually set up Hackney Trees Wardens, which was an initiative of the tree warden Ian Graham, which brought together various people interested in trees.

Not myself, but my long-time partner Eugene and a few others and the tree wardens, until about 2001 – at which time we came to a bit of a crux over whether we were simply a kind of group which followed the council’s lead and waited for the council, or whether we took our own initiative.

For a variety of reasons we changed our name in 2002 to the Tree Musketeers and Eugene and I took it towards doing what needs doing, so instead of waiting for anyone else to direct us, we worked out what needed planting where and got on with it. We still worked very closely with Ian and the tree unit.

The tree unit’s part of the council
That’s the Parks Dept’s tree gang. As with everything with the council, the Parks Dept has varied and changed over time and in many respects the role of trees in the Parks Dept has shrunk as the Parks Dept has shrunk, and that’s caused problems with the council’s own planting because actually trees do fairly poorly when the council plants them because they’re not managed by arboriculture people who actually understand trees.

So it’s the aftercare that the Tree Musketeers  give them that means they survive?
Exactly. You can plant any number of trees but it’s whether you want them there five, ten, a hundred years later. And whilst the council probably still plants more trees than us, we probably have more trees surviving than they do, It’s not a competition though, I’ve done training for the council’s gardening staff and obviously the ambition is that we have more trees. But the Tree Musketeers could plant and sustain a lot more trees if the coordination with the council was a lot better.

How do you know where you want to plant trees, are you all spread out around the borough or do you have particular places? I know there are particular places where you have historically planted a lot of trees, shall we mention some of them?
What we try and do is have some degree of focus, we’re not big enough to plant trees in every park in Hackney, there are 60-odd parks in Hackney.

How many people and volunteers are there?
I’ve no idea, the email list is well over 200, and people come and go. This comes down to the whole ethos of the Tree Musketeers as well. We’re more a way of being than an organisation: someone might be a volunteer one year and then they might come back three years later. Or they may become regular and come every week. For planting we might have 20 people come along; on aftercare days it’s always harder to get people to come along.

What’s an aftercare day?
Watering trees, or weeding or mulching or attending to guards or tree guards, there are a whole load of things to do with establishing a young tree, which are labour-intensive.
But there does need to be a degree of knowledge.

What other things do you do?
The other aspect is educating people about trees and raising the profile of trees, so the idea behind the TreeWheel is something that Bay Leahey [?} pioneered to get people going round on bikes looking at trees. The advantage of being on a bike is you can look at several parks in one afternoon and see a good selection of what’s in the borough, and there’s a fantastic tree collection in the borough.

What are the highlights of Hackney’s tree collection? What about some of the sites where you plant trees, what is there that people reading this could go and see?
Stoke Newington Common is the place where we started which involved ten years of planting, starting with the tree wardens and which we continued. We planted over 90 trees on Stoke Newington Common of which 60 are still there. That gives you a pretty good survival rate, Ideally you’re looking for survival rates of 75 per cent, and because we’ve been planting for ten years some of our trees are now semi-mature and you can now say, “that’s there to stay”.

Once they’re a certain size, save for dogs, they’re pretty indestructible. Staffordshire terriers are a story unto themselves… In terms of the trees there are…Stoke Newington Common is now a nicely tree-d common, so there’s a lot more wildlife associated with that and so with the Stoke Newington Common User Group (SNUG) we’ve planted hedgerow along the railway.

That becomes a biodiversity hub because the railway is obviously a corridor. So you’ve got the opportunity to see blackbirds and wrens much more easily than you would have done ten years ago.

But then in terms of the real trees of the borough, some of the best trees are biased towards the north end of the borough because that’s where you’ve got the oldest and biggest parks. You’ve got Springfield and Clissold Parks which have big Victorian tree collections and some stuff that’s even older than that. Clissold’s got some big old oaks and plane trees which predate even the park.

Abney Park Cemetery is probably still the gem of Hackney’s trees both because it has both very rare old unusual oaks from the Loddiges planting in the 1840s, but also because it’s the biggest and most diverse woodland in the borough. So if you want to get lost in a woodland, Abney’s the place to go. And then Springfield Park, has some magnificent beech trees and good old collections of wonderful black walnut.

Is Black walnut quite rare?
It’s an unusual tree, yes. There’s a small one on the Downs but to see a big one, I can’t think of another big one outside Kew. There will be others in London but there are no others in Hackney I don’t think.  Well St Common has a nice group of mature trees for the southern part of the borough. There are good scatterings all over

As a borough, is it quite unique for trees?
It is in a way because for an inner London borough it’s got a lot of green space. I always hesitate about saying things like that because planners think there’s a lot of green space they can build on it, which is what’s going on all time. But it is very well greened and treed. If you compare Hackney to Islington, Islington does have a very good collection of street trees but it doesn’t have anything like Hackney’s collections of specimen trees in plants.

Why does Islington have particularly good street trees?
Probably because they haven’t got any parks, so they’ve had to preserve and celebrate their street trees. Hackney’s got fantastic street trees as well.

Any in particular?
The plane trees at the start of Stamford hill, just outside Abney Park Cemetery are quite stunning, they are absolutely enormous.

You said there were trees in Clissold Park that date from before the park itself?
Clissold Park was a house before it was made over into a park in 1889 and you’ve also got part of the park which was part of Newington Common, not Stoke Newington Common, which is somewhere else, but the south-west corner bounded by Church Street and Green Lanes. The chestnuts on that are probably older than any other chestnuts in Hackney, the ones that are alive that is.

Chestnuts are another story, they’re suffering from so many diseases, you’ve got the horse chestnut leaf minor [?] so currently they all look brown, even though it’s only early autumn. That’s because the moth larvae are eating the leaves and they reproduce by the thousand every year, which puts a lot of stress on the trees. They’ve also got a disease called bleeding canker, which is actually killing them.

Is that a recent thing?
Fairly recent, yes. Horse chestnuts are facing problems all over Britain, and particularly in the south-east.

Is that the stress of the changing climate?
It probably is, yes. What you have with old tress is that drought stress and a changing climate are much more difficult to adapt to than with younger trees. They’re used to a particular cycle and they haven’t got much regenerative capacity. Another problem for trees in all parks is that they get hit by mowers all the time.

One of my personal ambitions is to persuade the council that mowing trees isn’t a good idea because it helps the ingress of diseases. Bacteria and fungi can just get straight through the bark. Consequently you’ve got a lot of trees dying before their time because in the last 20 years they’ve been hit by a mower more than once. Which is a tragedy in that not only are you losing trees before their time, and they are of fantastic Victorian heritage, but it’s harder and harder to establish new trees, so you’re losing the old before you’ve established the new.

You’re also planting a lot of trees, like orchards for example, can you tell us a bit about that?
Things go in fads and phases and people are into planting orchards at the moment. Which is good! Obviously there’s the issue of sustainability and access to local food, there’s been a big push on orchards. We’ve been involved in nine orchards up to now, working with lots of different groups.

Where are they?
OK, The orchards of Hackney are… Butterfield Green, which was planted by the user group there, there’s one on Hackney Downs which we pioneered; there’s one in Springfield Park, which was a joint venture with the park user group and the allotments people; then there’s one on Spring Hill, where there are other allotments; then there’s one on Daubeney Green, between Clapton Park estate and the Kingsmead Estate, which came through Groundwork and an Olympic initiative, that was REAP [?] money Millfields orchard went in last year with help from the user group. It’s on south Millfields, it’s tucked away by the canal, right where the electricity substation is. It was funded by National Grid as part of the compensation for the chaos created by the creation of their massive new substation. So that’s 50 trees, that’s the biggest orchard.

There’s fruit trees at the forest garden [on Hackney Marshes] and in Wick Woodland and in Kingfisher Wood, which is one of the new woodlands on Hackney Marshes on the main marsh.

Can you say a little bit about the tree nursery and the Marshes, Is the tree nursery part of Tree Musketeers?
They all blend. The tree nursery forest garden is managed by Hackney Marshes User Group. With an historical input from the Tree Musketeers, because we were involved at an early stage.

Is that where you get most of the trees you plant?
No, we’re only just getting to the point where we’re planting stuff from the tree nursery, For example we do have native black poplars which we propagated from stock in Wick Woodland, which was brought from Enfield I understand, so it’s good native stock. They grow prodigiously, so we’ve managed to propagate about 100 of them and they’ve started going into Springfield Park.

How long does it take?
Because they’re fast it took about five years, but if you plant an acorn and you want an oak tree big enough to go into a park  – what’s called a standard – then it’s more likely ten. Also we don’t entirely know what we’re doing in terms of growing trees into standards, we’re not an established nursery so we’re nowhere near as efficient as they are. So it’s only fairly recently that we’ve been able to plant out standard trees. Hitherto a lot of the stuff from the nursery has gone onto Hackney Marshes where new woodland has been established. You plant large numbers of smaller trees. So earlier this year, in February we planted a strip of new woodland on East Marsh which is the part of the Marshes that will become a coach park during the Olympics. We’ve been promised that it will come back, and almost to lay down a marker, to suggest that we do want it back we planted 100 trees as a buffer between the existing trees and where the coach park will go.

What did you plant?
That was a variety of stuff from the tree nursery, so a number of native black poplars went in there but oaks, some shrub stuff, guelder rose, cherries, a good native mix.

You also plant hedging?
Hedgerows are great for wildlife and getting trees in where you can’t have trees so yeah, we put hedges in. The new hedge on Hackney Downs in front of Mossbourne Academy that was one of Anne Woolett’s [?] last projects. Anne was chair of Hackney Downs User Group and Hackney Marshes User Group and a real force for getting stuff planted and she was responsible for planting a lot of the woods on Hackney Marshes, or making them happen. We planted the hedges on Stoke Newington Common which are now quite well established and offer a fantastic buffer to the wildlife corridor that is the railway. So even if Network Rail come along and slash and burn their side of the railway, the wildlife will have somewhere to hide until that comes back, and that’s a really important management issue with wildlife if you can provide havens, creating buffers is another aspect of the planting.

Have you got any particular favourites?
Trees? I spend an inordinate amount of my life in Abney Park Cemetery because I like to be surrounded by the trees and there I will visit the old oaks, which have caused me so much aggravation over the years in trying to identify them. When you try to look things up in books you realise that you’re not mad, that they’re not in the book.

That’s because they’re hybridising?
Yes, but also some of the old Loddiges trees, the old oaks are old Luccombe oaks, and if you go through the literature there’s a lot of confusion as to what a Luccombe oak looks like, and there are six of them in Abney.

Apart from Abney did Loddiges have any influence on the tree stock that we’ve got?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know of any other tree in Hackney that is definitely Loddiges, but there’s every reason to believe there will be some whether one could ever establish they were Loddiges might be doubtful. Where Loddiges was is now the Frampton Park Estate, so there’s probably nothing in that immediate vicinity that is from Loddiges, but Well St Common is just about possible. There’s a lovely old silver lime which is dying on Well St Common and it could be that old, but there’s no way you’d know. Obviously most of the plane trees are old enough to have been. I think almost certainly Loddiges had an influence on the trees in Clissold Park. There used to be a really quite rare collection of thorns in Clissold, the last of which is dying at the moment.

When you say rare thorns…?
The old one that I am thinking of us large-leaved thorn, Crataegus [?], that is really quite an unusual grafted tree, but I don’t know of another large–leaved thorn in London. There probably are some though. So there’s that and there were others.

What about your other trees that you look at, are there any new ones that you look at? Are there any that you’ve planted?
One of the great things now is coming across some of the trees that we planted and thinking oh my God that’s got bigger! Because for several years you tend them, and while you’re tending them because they’re a responsibility they’re almost a burden because you’re trying to ensure that they don’t die.

So you don’t necessarily really see them, you see them in so far as they’re healthy, but what’s nice is when you’ve let go of them and you no longer are looking after them and you go back a couple of years later and suddenly you see it’s coping perfectly well without you. And so there are  trees on Stoke Newington Common. There’s an oak and a hornbeam that are semi-mature now, so they’re great to go and see. And we have done one of the cycle Tree Wheels to go and see the stuff that we’ve planted.

Actually we have a volunteer who had a period in Spain for five years, and she visited her own chestnut recently in Springfield Park and that’s doing fantastically well. I probably don’t go back enough to see the trees I’ve planted, but you begin to forget the ones you planted and the ones you didn’t, so it’s good to let them go.

What should people be looking for as we go into autumn?
Autumn comes late now, so you’re not going to see much in the way of autumn leaf colour change until late October.

What would the highlights be then?
Things to look out for are the Caucasian Ash in Clissold Park by the bowling green. It goes a wonderful yellow colour round about November. The True Service Tree in Clapton Square goes an amazing red in November. The liquidambars all turn an amazing red, there’s quite a few of those, relatively young trees on the streets, so you if you’re walking or cycling about and you see a bright red, semi-mature tree on the street in late October, that’s going to be a liquidambar. And then I guess fruit on trees.

Will this be a good year for fruit?
Probably a better year for vegetative growth than fruit in that fruit wants a bit of heat to get it going. Some of the crab apples are looking good at the moment, how many of them will still be there when this comes out I don’t know, but there are some good reddy-yellowy apples on the Everest crabs. Our orchards are not yet of a maturity where there’s going to be a lot of fruit to see there. It’s going to take a few years.

How long?
Within five years there’s going to be quite a lot of fruit around. Remains to be seen how they do on the soils they’re on. London clay is quite good stuff, but Hackney has a pretty universal layer of rubble. Pretty much anywhere you plant in Hackneywithin six inches you hit housing, either bomb  rubble from the war or Victorian infill, so under Millfields orchard, the Downs orchard, that’s certainly the case. Springfield probably has got a better soil. We just have to see and probably we’ll have to add some horse mature.

Further information.

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