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Branch-lopping sheds light in Heene Cemetery

There are three mature Monterey Cypress trees in Heene Cemetery. You can’t miss them: walk in and immediately they are on your left. They seem right at home there, fine examples of a tradition of planting cypresses in cemeteries. But read on to discover the challenge they present…

There are three mature Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) trees in Heene Cemetery. You can’t miss them: walk in and immediately they are on your left. They seem right at home there, fine examples of a tradition of planting cypresses in cemeteries. Where the ancients used to plant yew trees, the Victorians took to planting cypresses. They were faster to reach a mature height and quickly provided what was considered welcome shade around graves and those who visited them. Their presence in cemeteries seems to contribute to a veneration of the past.

Unfortunately, this comes at some cost as this type of cypress is notorious for dropping sap and needles and thereby making something of an ecological desert beneath those shading branches. As nothing will live in, on or under these trees, we began to consider the option of thinning some of their branches out, particularly from the western-most ones, the two furthest from the wall.

Heene Cemetery Monterey Cypresses before being lopped

We therefore sought advice from our ecology guide, Brian Day, who was of the opinion that these particular trees were of minimal benefit to the immediate environment and could afford to have a small proportion of their branches removed. We therefore made an application to the local authority to crown lift the north cypress (T1 below) by removing two lower limbs growing south-west and two limbs growing east and then to remove four branches and crown lift the west side of the south cypress (T2 below).

Site plan of the Monterey Cypress trees to be lopped in Heene Cemetery, March 2020

The authority’s office was of the opinion that these works would be relatively minor in relation to the size, spread and crown of the form of the trees and would not adversely affect their appearance, amenity value or contribution to the character of the Heene Conservation Area. This was going to be a light trim, certainly not a short back and sides. In addition, the council confirmed that a tree preservation order was not going to be made on these trees.

Connick Tree Care with their mobile wood chipper reversed through the cemetery’s gates

On Thursday 19th March, just five days before the nationwide coronavirus lockdown came into force, a couple of tree surgeons from Connick Tree Care spent most of the day hard at work getting the job done.

One man aloft trimming side branches whilst the other feeds the debris into the mobile wood chipper

They reversed their mobile wood chipper into the cemetery’s gates, togged up and set to work. With one man aloft, thinning side branches, the other got cracking feeding the trimmings into the chipper. Once that was done, each major branch was felled, often requiring a web of intricate ropework so that cut branches could be lowered rather than dropped. Avoiding any of the gravestones and a special Holly tree was very carefully managed. Hats off to you, gentlemen!

Heene Cemetery Monterey Cypresses after lopping

With the canopy formed by these cypresses now slightly thinned, the volume of light coming in is substantially increased.

Lopped southern Monterey Cypress standing guard over the Wood family’s headstones in Heene Cemetery

One of Heene’s cypress trees has a singular role in that it shelters the graves of members of the Wood family. Sarah Maria Wood, ‘the dearly beloved wife of Major Matthew Wood’, died in September 1897. Her headstone, seen here on the left, has over the years been cradled by the growing cypress and is now partially enfolded by the trunk’s embrace, the stone’s bottom-right corner pinched and snapped. It is a startling embrace, and one that suggests that this particular tree was planted after the grave was dug. This view is corroborated by the aerial photograph shown below. Dated 1924, the photograph shows no sign that any of these cypress trees were growing in the cemetery then.

Aerial photograph of Heene Cemetery dated 1924, showing no sign of these cypress trees growing at that time

Lopped southern Monterey Cypress standing guard over the Wood family’s headstones in Heene Cemetery (detail)

A second headstone, on the right, marks Matthew Wood’s grave and is dated May 1907. Its foot is glancingly touched by the emerging tree. This grouping of two related headstones under a cypress tree is one of Heene’s more poignant and memorable spots.

Cut cypress branches, new habitats under the southern yew tree

Some of these cut cypress logs have been kept and have already been moved to underneath the southern Yew tree or the south wall. Some of these will be left to season and eventually may be used by a wood turner or crafter. Other slices may also be used as small stools for children to sit on when eventually we manage to get groups coming in for educational purposes.