Charles Darwin Oak: Council approves felling of 550-year-old tree linked to famed naturalist for new bypass

The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied)The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied)
The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied) | Woodland Trust/Supplied
Not long after the illegal felling of the Sycamore Gap tree, another iconic British tree may be lost

A 550-year-old tree which some say may have been scaled by Charles Darwin as a boy has been handed its death warrant, after a local council approved its felling to make way for a new bypass.

Shropshire Council has this week given the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road proposal the go-ahead. In a statement, the council wrote that the road, which could start being built as early as 2025, was the "next step in completing the ‘missing link’ in Shrewsbury’s road network".

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It would free up road space in the town centre, a spokesperson said, improving air quality and safety. It would also provide "a huge boost for Shropshire’s economy", they wrote, by making Shropshire businesses more accessible.

However, environmentalists say that for the road to go ahead, nine ancient trees - included the well-known Darwin Oak - would be felled. On top of that, they say it will lead to the destruction of many other trees, in one of the area's "last vestiges of beautiful countryside".

The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied)The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied)
The Darwin Oak is Shropshire is thought to be 550 years old (Photo: Woodland Trust/Supplied) | Woodland Trust/Supplied)

News of the council's road approval has attracted fierce criticism, and thousands have signed a petition started to save the tree. In a post on X - formerly known as Twitter - the Woodland Trust said the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road would "have huge impacts on nature, with nine veteran trees to be lost, 37 more to be harmed and ancient woodland subject to damage".

The Darwin Oak was a 550-year ancient giant, with a massive 7-metre girth, they said. "Named after Charles Darwin who frequently walked the area, this tree is one of our living legends, having survived many other threats over the centuries." The Trust said that the decision was a death sentence for the iconic tree, adding: "these living legends deserve better".

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Ancient tree campaigner Robert McBride started the Change.org petition to save the Darwin Oak, which as of Friday afternoon had nearly 10,000 signatures. He wrote that there was plenty of scope at this early development stage to move, "at little or no cost", the proposed carriageway and save the culturally significant oak tree.

"Even as an eight-year-old, Charles Darwin – born nearby at The Mount - already had a taste for natural history and collecting. He walked extensively along the banks of the River Severn and the bucolic lanes and fields around Shelton Rough," he continued. "It is hard to believe that he would not have known the already-aged and significant landmark oak tree (350 years old by then). Almost certainly, he would have sat under or even clambered up the spreading boughs of this majestic ancient oak tree, perhaps contemplating his future famous scientific works."

The bypass would "decimate" Shrewsbury’s 'Green Wedge', Mr McBride wrote, and the proposed felling of the nine veteran trees went against the government’s own National Planning Policy Framework. It also flew in the face of their Keepers of Time policy, he added, which stated that: “England’s ancient and native woodlands and ancient and veteran trees support high levels of biodiversity.

"They are home to a quarter of England’s priority species for conservation. They also deliver many ecosystem services including water and soil regulation, carbon storage, support for people’s wellbeing and their long-standing cultural values.”

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The safeguarding of the Darwin Oak as part of the North West Relief Road scheme would demonstrate the UK government and Shropshire Council’s commitment to "preserving our birthright", he continued, and to the well-being of future generations.

News of the Darwin Oak's felling comes less than two months after the Sycamore Gap tree, one of the UK's most famous trees which sat nestled in a picturesque dip between two hills, was downed in what police believe was an act of vandalism. The case has caused a similar outcry, with many who had loved or photographed it throughout the years speaking of their disgust, shock, and sadness at its loss.

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