SIR – The other day I passed what is becoming a common sight – a stand of trees sawed off at waist height, their trunks left jagged, their crowns left lying in the field. I asked the tree cutter why; ‘health and safety issues,’ he answered warily, ‘why?’
I replied something to the effect of it being a shame to take them down.
‘Ah,’ he scoffed, ‘You care for small things!’
I drove home wondering why the Health and Safety Authority deems the tree a greater threat to health than say, the car. I mean, to put it bluntly and with no less acknowledgement of tragedy to a death by either cause – surely, thousands of people are killed by cars every year and only a few have ever been killed by trees. Why, then, are so many thousands of trees being cut down and hedges destroyed on the grounds of health and safety?
It has got little to do with safety and everything to do with profit.
Since the changes in 2014 where the maintenance of the roadsides passed to landowners along with the removal of a raft of environmental protections, landowners have been forced to damage the environment, destroy natural habitat and despoil our surroundings because insurance companies and the litigation culture are forcing them to do so.
The idea that landowners and farmers were somehow given greater autonomy in 2014 is something of a misnomer. What really happened was that politicians abdicated an onerous and complex responsibility in order to save money. In doing so they have effectively allowed a radical monopoly between the health and safety executive and the insurance industry; the former grooming a culture of risk, the latter selling insurance against it.
They have laid open endless litigation possibilities; from twigs hitting windscreens, marginally reduced visibility from an overgrown bank, to the ‘if lightning were to strike’ chance of a tree falling on a car. Landowners can’t get cover to protect themselves unless they comply with the increasingly unreasonable demands of their insurance company.
On the back of this, insurance companies are having a field day – effectively, they only insure once every risk that might be insured against is removed – and contractors and tree surgeons are kept busy sawing down the source of their livelihood instead of sustaining it.
Meanwhile we, watching this destruction, try to justify it to ourselves, try to put reason to this madness. ‘Well I suppose they were leaning over a bit’ or even blank it out. This is modern Ireland after all; driven by hard necessity, everyone living life at a million miles an hour, etc, etc.
We are fooling ourselves. Nowhere else in Europe is this happening. Almost every country has more tree coverage than we do; the busiest of roads are flanked with well-maintained banks of trees; the richest cities are green with them.
But in Ireland, four years since the changes, hundreds of miles of trees have been cut down – are being cut down at this very moment, hedges ripped up and verges sprayed with toxins. Look at so many of our roadsides! Ugly blasted stumps, denuded hedges, once blooming summer verges brown and wilting. It is monstrous, soul destroying. It is a national tragedy!
I’m writing this to ask everyone to demand that our government reverse the 2014 changes. It has been a huge mistake and we must stop this destruction now.
Government must take back responsibility for our roadsides and legislate sensible and sustainable policies for their maintenance. After all, it is the duty of government to manage the national interest and to set an example in caring for Ireland, her nature and her people.
Then, perhaps enterprise can be generated through maintenance and care of the roadsides instead of razing vegetation to the ground. Then, perhaps, more of the profits of enterprise will find its way into the pockets of ordinary people, instead of into the coffers of insurance companies.
One last thing and it brings me back to those small things: a couple of weeks ago driving, I found myself on a stretch of road, its banks carefully trimmed and rounded.
I could see how the flail bar had been carefully lifted for every trunk; and here and there a well-cut angle showed where a dead branch had been skilfully pruned. The branches stretched upwards to form a great leafy corridor of russet colours against the bluest of autumn skies; and the sun shone gilding the fluttering beech leaves as they fell in spinning drifts. It was a vision of heaven on earth.
Why would anyone want this gone? Why are so many of us living in fear – in fear of life itself?
And then I thought of the many despairing people who, God rest them, see no way but to kill themselves.
How many, I wondered, if they could have witnessed the beauty of that moment, felt their spirits soar and their racing hearts calm to a slow beat, suffused with happiness, how many might have decided that today was a good day to be alive after all?
Here’s to ‘small things.’