Rare butterfly tree next on Sheffield hit list

Calvin Payne in front of the tree on Chelsea Road in Sheffield.
Calvin Payne in front of the tree on Chelsea Road in Sheffield.
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A rare mature elm tree that is home to a colony of critically endangered butterflies is the latest to be earmarked for the chop in Sheffield Council’s controversial felling programme.

The so-called Chelsea Road Elm, which was England’s runner-up in the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year contest last year, survived Dutch elm disease and houses the white-letter hairstreak, a species of butterfly whose population has fallen by 96 per cent in the last 40 years.

The council says the tree, in the city’s Nether Edge district, is “causing irreparable damage to the surrounding kerb and pavement” and has put a price of £50,000 on saving it.

But campaigners who have waged an increasingly bitter battle with council officials over the £2bn “Streets Ahead” PFI roadside maintenance deal it signed with a contractor, have accused the authority of double standards. Calvin Payne, who lives near the threatened elm, said: “If there was a tree in my garden with an endangered species inside and I felled it, I would be prosecuted - no questions asked.”

Local authority tree expert Ian Dalton added: “In Brighton, they have a team whose job is just to look after the elm trees. The difference in approach is unbelievable. To fell such a rare, valuable tree just because the pavement is a bit wonky is absolute madness.”

Earlier this week, it emerged that the council had threatened civil action against campaigners, including Green Party councillor Alison Teal, who described the move as “Stalinist” after she was served with legal papers.

In February, she was among seven people arrested after a standoff with police during a protest against the tree-felling programme.

In March, South Yorkshire’s police commissioner, Alan Billings, promised no further arrests as prosecutors were “not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters”.

Since then, campaigners and contractors have played a daily game of cat and mouse, with protestors blocking access to up to eight felling crews.

Sheffield, which has billed itself as Britain’s greenest city, has 36,000 roadside trees, but 4,168 have been removed since the Streets Ahead programme began.

Sheffield Council says the cost of retaining the Chelsea Road elm tree would be “unfeasible” and “unjust”.

Coun Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for “street scene and environment”, said: “As well as having significant decay, it is causing irreparable damage to the surrounding kerb and pavement.”

He said initiatives to preserve wildlife included boxes to “encourage species to inhabit certain environments”.