Professional tree hugger 'devastated' over Sycamore Gap cull: How trees help our wellbeing

'There are environmental and human health impacts when fellings like this happen'

Adele Benson with the European Tree of the Year 2022 winner, Oak Dunin in Poland. (Supplied)
Adele Benson with the European Tree of the Year 2022 winner, Oak Dunin in Poland. (Supplied)

A professional tree hugger and campaigner is "devastated" over the loss of the iconic Sycamore Gap in Northumberland, and has warned of the impact to both the environment and human health when unsolicited tree fellings occur.

The landmark tree in Northumberland has been removed from Hadrian's Wall after alleged "vandals" hacked it down at the end of September, now leaving just a stump behind. Northumbria Police arrested a boy aged 16 and a man in his 60s after the tree was felled, with both now released on bail pending further inquiries.

"I'm devastated that such an iconic tree, that so many people had a connection with, has been felled," Adele Benson, 26, living in Bristol, tells Yahoo Life UK. "It was voted Tree of the Year in 2016, which just goes to show how universally appreciated it was."

Benson says that, since the incident, she has started to see more interest in trees than she has for a long time. And as a campaigner for Woodland Trust, she knows first-hand just how much damage can be caused by healthy trees being cut down.

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Adele Benson with the 'Fattest Tree' at Ashton Court Estate. (Supplied)
Adele Benson with the 'Fattest Tree' at Ashton Court Estate. (Supplied)

The effects of tree fellings

"There are immediate and long-term impacts for communities when fellings like this happen. There's an environmental impact, an impact on human health and there can be an aesthetic impact," Benson explains.

"However, there's also a larger impact of these individual fellings happening nationwide. Whilst we've managed to save trees this year, there have been other trees that have been lost for communities across the UK. Often these trees aren't being replaced – so we need to do what we can to save what we have.

"Our oldest trees are irreplaceable habitats for fungi, invertebrates and small mammals. Rotting oak wood, for example, is an increasingly rare eco-system that can support almost 2,000 species!"

While Benson is upset over the Sycamore Gap incident, she hopes more awareness and legislation can help prevent similar fellings from happening in the future. "Those who cut down trees aren't always vandals. Sometimes they don't understand the impact that these pillars of nature can have for our communities," she explains.

"Government has to play an important role in securing legal protection for our beautiful old trees and we all have a shared responsibility to understand the history, stories and benefits of the trees around us."

Watch: Felled Sycamore Gap tree removed from Hadrian's Wall

Other than having "incredible memories of spending time in woodland around trees" with her family, and wishing the same for others, Benson explains why she campaigns for both the protection of trees and people in the first place.

"Trees play a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of our ecosystems, safeguarding biodiversity, as well as providing numerous benefits for our wellbeing. Trees are an integral part of a healthy, sustainable, and harmonious environment, and their protection is essential to benefit us and future generations," she says.

In terms of what these exact 'benefits' to us are, Benson says she doesn't know where to start. "They're the silent guardians of our wellbeing providing clean air and vibrancy to our natural environment. Especially since the pandemic, I've heard from people who rely on trees for solace, stress relief, and have felt a connection to nature."

How do trees help our wellbeing?

Portrait of a man breathing fresh air in nature (Getty Images)
From landmark trees to those in our local park, they can all give us a boost. (Getty Images)

It seems the list of benefits from trees for both our physical and mental health is endless, with lots of supporting evidence. "Trees help us stay healthy by cleaning the air, getting us moving, offering shade on hot days, strengthening our immune system, and boosting our overall happiness!" says Ellen Devine, Forestry England’s wellbeing project manager.

"Research has found that when we breathe in phytoncides, the chemicals that are released by plants and trees, it can make our immune, hormonal, circulatory, and nervous systems stronger.

"Research also shows that time spent in nature, and forests in particular, can have a dramatic effect on people’s overall wellbeing. They screen out noise, absorb large numbers of people without making you feel crowded and offer a range of activities to suit a range of fitness levels.

"Studies into 'forest bathing', or Shinrin Yoku, in Korea and Japan," she adds, "have shown that even short-term exposure to the forest can enhance positive emotions, lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduced stress hormones. Research has also shown a walk in the woods to reduce blood sugar levels among diabetics and improves immunity."

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woman doing mindfulness in nature
Connecting with nature wherever we are helps our mental health. (Getty Images)

And aside from landmark trees, can we reap the benefits of all types of trees?

"Yes, absolutely, we can whether they are in our garden, local park, or local forest. Taking time to connect with nature can make us feel better, wherever it may be," Devine emphasises.

"Trees can live for hundreds of years, and forests could survive forever, so they often carry an emotional connection for people, inspire awe and provide a sense of time, and connect people with places and memories. That's why many people were quite sad about the recent Sycamore tree being lost along Hadrian's Wall – it had a lot of sentimental value for these same reasons.

"A study also revealed that people even get on with each other better when they’re immersed in the natural world, it can make them more sociable."

Devine also points out the benefits trees can give us in terms of wood and timber products. "From supporting the roof over your head to the floor under your feet. Sustainable forestry is a great way to maintain the forests we love as we collect seeds, plant young trees and care for them before felling for the wonderful timber and starting the whole cycle again."

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Can tree hugging boost our wellbeing?

woman hugging tree
Are you a tree hugger? (Getty Images)

While some may laugh, the benefits of tree hugging shouldn't be dismissed.

"I love hugging trees! There are some very real health benefits to hugging trees, and studies show that people who regularly hug trees report feeling happier, calmer, and less stressed," says Devine.

And, as Benson herself adds, "Plenty of people feel a better connection to nature through tree hugging! It provides a moment of mindfulness and grounding which can reduce stress and improve your mood. We have even been known to estimate the size of our biggest trees by the number of hugs all the way round, so it has its practical applications too."

She also suggests researching the 'original tree huggers', a group of women of colour, to help us understand the history of where the practice came from, bravely born to protect local trees from destruction.

The Woodland Trust's Living Legends campaign is calling for better legal protection for the UK's oldest and most special trees, recognising how trees connect us to our history, environment, culture, and our communities. You can sign the petition here.