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From picking up sticks to planting new trees: an interview with Robin Walter

Updated: Jan 16

We caught up with Robin Walter, arboriculturalist, tree advocate and author, just after the publication of his book Living with Trees, published by Little Toller Books.

Shaftesbury is lucky to have some noted trees - do you have a particular favourite, and why?

There are some wonderful trees in Shaftesbury, and the Tree Group has made a good job of documenting them. My favourite has to be the large and ancient yew tree in Bury Litton Churchyard at the end of Bimport. It is hundreds if not thousands of years old and a beautiful sprawling specimen. It is a living monument of resilience through the ages.

Tell us a little about your route into tree work and forestry, and how that influenced the book.

My path towards writing this book has been an odd one: a private education, a degree in German, teaching English in Sudan, an anarchic spell at Green Deserts, then picking up sticks for a tree surgeon. This last job was the start of my 30 years of working with trees - beginning with climbing and pruning in London, then working on a broader scale both cutting commercial conifers and managing private woodlands in Wessex. It was hard work 'on the tools', but an excellent grounding: as an arboriculturalist mediating between people and trees in the city; as a forest worker trying to make a living with the challenges of rain, breakdowns and piece work; and as a small woodland manager trying to look after woods in difficult market conditions.

A job with a large contractor meant I could leave the mud behind and pursue forest management, including contracts for by-pass planting and a huge broadleaf plantation. I qualified as a Chartered Forester and joined a small company managing woods on private estates, and it was a great privilege to stand in the long line of estate foresters looking after these beautiful woods. However, a persistent belief that woods could be an open resource for people and wildlife led me to join a tree conservation charity and manage some of their woods, primarily for wildlife and public access. Following a re-organisation, I left to become an independent forestry consultant, undertaking management, planting and a new line as a forest certification auditor, and most recently as an author.

There are some ambitious tree plans for the town, can you tell us a bit more about that, and how you're involved?

I have been involved with the Shaftesbury Town Tree Plan through the Tree Group. Tree cover in town is not bad on the west side, but very sparse on the east side. So we surveyed the Town Council's land (ie. the parks) and found they could well do with more trees. This winter we are planting trees, with community help, in January. Next season we hope to focus planting on school grounds and have already had constructive talks with teachers, administrators and pupils. The project is detailed on the Planet Shaftesbury website.

If you could look forward 100 years, what would you like to change in our landscape?

What to change in 100 years? Read the book! We need to increase our massively depleted tree cover in Britain, from the current 13% to at least the European average of 38%, if not higher. These trees need to be in towns, farmland, hillsides to protect us from our deteriorating climate and extreme weather, to provide habitat for our dwindling wildlife, and resources for a low-carbon economy.

You've got a new book, published by Little Toller - Living With Trees. How did it come about?

In 2010 the government tried to sell off the Forestry Commission woods and there was a huge upswelling of interest in our woods. In response to this, the environmental charity Common Ground approached me to revise their book 'In A Nutshell' and so my work researching and writing this tree book began. In the years since then, funding has come and gone, the charity has changed hands, the book has grown in scope and COVID-19 has thrown plans into disarray - but now I am honoured to present my reflections on our trees and woods and my vision for the future.

If you could urge people to do one thing for the trees in their neighbourhood - what would it be?

Protect what we have got! Planting new trees is fine, but retaining what we already have is the first step. With on-going developments in housing and infrastructure, this protection is more vital than ever. Think Sheffield street trees and HS2!

And finally, what's your earliest tree memory?

Climbing a tree next to our house and getting about level with the gutters. I didn't know at the time, but I now reckon it was an English Elm and I can distinctly remember the rough leaves, like sandpaper, and the corky fissured bark.

About the book

Living With Trees is a cornucopia of practical information, good examples and new ideas that will inspire, guide and encourage people to reconnect with the trees and woods in their community, so we can all value, celebrate and protect our arboreal neighbours.

You can buy the book here, but if you live in Shaftesbury, you can contact Robin by email or phone and come to collect a signed copy from Bimport for £20 (rrp £25).

Visit the Living with Trees website

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