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The oak tree known as “Darwin’s oak” will be cut down in order to construct the Shrewsbury bypass.

When Charles Darwin was eight years old, he possibly spent time sitting under the tree’s shade and climbing its branches. Now, after two hundred years, the tree known as “Darwin’s oak” is set to be cut down to make room for a new road that will go around Shrewsbury.

The proposed Shrewsbury North West Relief Road (NWRR) is set to pass through a path that includes a 550-year-old open-grown oak tree, along with eight other veteran trees. The oak tree has a girth of 7 metres (23ft) and the NWRR is an £80m bypass that will connect the northern and western areas of the town.

After a lengthy effort to protect the ancient tree and its counterparts, the decision was made on Tuesday evening by the 11-member planning committee of Shropshire county council. The new road was narrowly approved with a vote of six to five.

“The concept aligns with Darwin’s theory of evolution,” stated Rob McBride, an advocate for trees. “There are an excessive number of outdated members on that committee.”

The Shropshire county council refers to the NWRR as the next phase in connecting the roads in Shrewsbury, filling in a gap that has been missing. This will create a circular route around the town, which has a population of approximately 75,000 people. Supporters argue that this will alleviate congestion and remove traffic from the town center, leading to better air quality, shorter travel times, and a boost to the economy of the entire county.

Local campaigner Rob McBride at the tree in 2021

Dan Morris, the cabinet member for highways at Shropshire council, expressed his acceptance of the differing opinions surrounding the NWRR. However, he remains confident that the project will greatly impact not only the town, but also the surrounding villages. This statement was made after the planning committee made their decision.

However, opponents argue that the proposed construction of a new road will greatly diminish one of the few remaining rural areas in Shrewsbury. The road will split the town’s “green wedge”, a patch of greenery that stretches almost to the center of town and is one of the few local spaces that has not yet been affected by urbanization, according to McBride.

For five centuries, Darwin’s oak has stood as a landmark within that band of nature. It stands close to The Mount, the 1800 home of Robert Darwin, the father of Charles Darwin, and in countryside the naturalist explored extensively as a boy as he developed his love and curiosity for nature.

McBride described the tree as magnificent and awe-inspiring. It can be seen directly across the meadow when approaching the River Severn. The meadow is low, but then it rises up into a hedgerow where the tree stands. It is a remarkable landmark that many people, including residents, utilize for comfort, to connect with nature, and to heal themselves.

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Despite facing strong opposition from the local community, Shropshire ultimately decided to move forward with the construction of a new road. Despite over 5,000 objections, the planning committee approved the plan. Additionally, the Woodland Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving trees, expressed concerns that the road’s approval disregards national planning regulations that are meant to safeguard old and significant trees unless there are truly exceptional circumstances.

Jack Taylor, the main advocate for the Woodland Trust, expressed disappointment over the potential loss of another iconic tree so soon after the loss of the famous Sycamore Gap tree. The recent approval of the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road is a negative development for the environment and our natural heritage, as it puts at risk the survival of this renowned tree, as well as many other irreplaceable old trees, and may cause harm to nearby ancient woodland. There is a pressing need for stronger measures to protect these natural wonders, before they become mere relics of the past.

There is still optimism among local activists that they can preserve the tree. A petition with 2,500 signatures has been submitted to the council, urging them to reconsider their choice. However, if their efforts are unsuccessful, it will result in the permanent loss of another part of Britain’s natural heritage.

Source: theguardian.com