Remembering 1987: save the oaks now

Remembering Oaks in Kent

Remembering 1987: The kitchen of my parents’ house in Sevenoaks was darker than I had expected at 10 in the morning, as it had a large window looking onto the garden. To my astonishment, the expected view was totally obscured by the branches of a tree…

It was 15 October 1987 and I had slept through an horrific storm which hit Kent in the night. The devastation caused by the storm thankfully only caused one human causality, but aerial photographs showed the impact on the Garden of England, especially on trees. Sevenoaks lost six of its seven oaks, and Knole Park tragically lost around 75% of its trees. Many famous Kent parks and gardens were ravaged.

My parents and I shed tears at the sight of hundreds of majestic trees, which had taken decades or even centuries to mature, blown over within a night. I will never forget the sadness we felt, as we walked past the one large oak still standing at the top of our road on the Vine cricket ground. It was several weeks later that the message of hope made the headlines: six new oaks were going to be planted.

Risk of losing young oaks: save the oaks

Forward to March 2020: we in the UK were about a week into the first lockdown and we looked into the liminal edges of a pandemic raging. Late one night, I read an article in the Times saying that “More than 750,000 young oak trees due for planting will be destroyed by nursery owners who blame delays in government help for woodland creation.”

climate emergency demo in Kent

I believe – and I am not alone in thinking this – that trees are an essential part of our British landscape – think of the stunning oaks, ash, and sycamore across Kent, Sussex and beyond.

James Murray-White read the same news, and takes up the story:

In addition to the pandemic raging through the quiet Oxford streets, here was the horrific news of another human-induced ecocide, caused by the UK Government reneging on its lighter than air promises.

This came on the back of the Australian bushfires, the Amazon burning, and fires raging across Californian forests. And this is all preventable.

These oaks had been grown from local acorns, so entirely local provenance, as Welsh/English Quercus Robar – pedunculate oaks – commonly found across much of the Isle, grown for the annual planting quota.

I mulled on this overnight, unable to sleep, and knowing that it must be possible to respond to create a positive situation. In the morning I called around some tree planter friends, who I knew would feel the same way. We quickly found consensus and agreed to act together to try to find a solution.

Over the next few days, I spoke to some of the Nursery owners, who all sounded gloomy and despondent. One of the smaller nursery owners, who had initially been quoted as having no option but to destroy the saplings, told me he was finding ways to hold them for next year. He was exploring the possibility of blending them into other orders. He wouldn’t destroy them – he couldn’t bear to – but after explaining the changeability of the Government planting schemes since 1988 – it sounded like he was utterly sick of the Industry of which he was part.

Our group, formed through Extinction Rebellion (XR) Rewilding, gave ourselves a campaign name, ‘Save the Oaks’. We set up a crowdfunding campaign, and negotiated with the biggest nursery, in Wales, a deal where we pay a price for each sapling, that covers their overheads and is a token payment per tree.

Forward now to January 2021, 9 months later – the pandemic is still raging, and we are into this New Year’s planting season: we have raised over £12,000 from over 380 Individual donations and will shortly be distributing 30,000 oak saplings to over 150 individuals and community planting groups who have responded to our call.

We need, as volunteers, to find safe ways to gather the saplings and to distribute them to the places in which they will be planted. Essentially, we must work out how best to correct mistakes that have been made and arrive at a situation where our trees can thrive.

We seek to honour these trees, which we hope will grow into beautiful big oaks, absorbing carbon and filtering oxygen into the atmosphere. We want them to be a haven for all sorts of wildlife and provide much-needed canopy cover within often denuded bleak landscapes.

Map of save the oaks project

About 700 oaks will be coming to Kent, with around 500 in the care of Rebecca Hayat, a yoga teacher and mother, based in Dartford. She planted some 450 trees last year and is passionate about tree care and their value to us and the planet.

They will also be planted across Southern Scotland, as far north as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Ayr, the Borders, through Cumbria. And in the North-East, the Wirral, Corby, Leicestershire, Bristol, North and South Wales, Somerset, Bridport, Devon and right into deepest Cornwall, along the South Coast to Lewes and Brighton and beyond, up through Sussex.

I will personally be distributing 4,000 around my home City of Cambridgeshire, and into all the Counties of East Anglia.

I’m very proud of Save the Oaks and that we’ve stepped up to respond to this crisis in such a positive way: there are many more trees to rescue and distribute, but this is such a positive community action in the midst of this crisis. For the trees.

If you want to get involved, to apply for trees and /or to help fund others, contact Save the Oaks.

James Murray-White is a cofounder of Save the Oaks and Extinction Rebellion Rewilding.