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St Augustines Primary School - Treemarkable project

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St Augustine’s joined the project in May of 2023 when the trees were coming into full leaf. The Eco team came together as an after-school club and to begin the project they learnt how to identify different trees through processes of leaf identification.

However, they also really enjoyed identifying the trees in their school grounds in game form: they began in a circle and then, when I called out a specific tree, they had to run and gather evidence of each tree with the first pupil back being the winner.

As knowledge of the different trees in their school grew links were made with issues such as climate change and clean air, but we also explored the different superpowers that trees have, whether about the poisonous yew providing chemicals for chemotherapy, using the willow to make cricket bats or hazel nuts to make Nuttella!

The beautiful hawthorn became a learning point as pupils wanted to pick the flowers and take them home. However, they soon discovered that the blooms were particularly stinky. We then discussed how folklore thought it was unlucky to take hawthorn flowers inside and then how science has discovered that the smell (produced from trimethylamine) is one of the first chemicals produced by a decomposing corpse, which is probably why people associated hawthorn with death.

The pupils were introduced to the safe use of gardening equipment, including seceteurs, loppers and hand saws. Then, using keen observation skills, they studied the trees in their school grounds looking for any damaged, diseased or dead wood which they could attend to. Many of the trees lower branches had been broken by pupils snapping them or swinging from them and the team understood this could provide openings for fungal or other diseases to enter the trees. As it was Summer and not the best time to work on trees, we carefully pruned away dead and damaged wood and then examined its insides. Some of the samples we pruned were healthy, but in others we found the wood had turned brown inside indicating the presence of fungal disease.

The team were also able to explore the super powers of trees and we focused on the school’s overgrown willow tunnel as it needed attention and would supply valuable resource to show off its superpower of flexibility.

Having cut back some of the willow the team were introduced to willow weaving and practiced weaving their willow whips into circles and then decorated them with old wool, a process which the pupils enjoyed.

Following the Summer holidays the afterschool club started up again. Despite losing the older Year 6 pupils the knowledge around tree identification and how to care for them was still very good and those younger pupils, who had been previously excluded from using tools like saws, were trained up so that more tree care could be undertaken.

We also found that one of the fruit trees had become infected during the break and were worried that the infection could spread. This meant that a professional tree surgeon was brought into the site to ensure the other trees could be protected.

Positively though, we decided to examine tree nuts and seeds and decided to try to grow lots of new trees. We focused on the hardy rowan, the beautiful beech and the delicious sweet chestnut. Firstly, we gathered the berries of the rowan and learnt how to separate the seeds from the berries.

The team then added crocks to pots, for good drainage, added compost and then planted the seeds and nuts and found a suitable place for them outside to over Winter… we then all needed to learn about cultivating patience!

In the meantime, the orchard had produced lots of fruits, particularly apples, which the team collected, selected and then distributed. It was reported back that apple pie, crumble and apple cake were all made from the harvest.

A couple of the pupils were also concerned about several large local trees which were being cut down. Having also noticed the work that was being done I knew that when the pupils identified the trees as ash they were right and that we needed to discuss the problem of ash die back.

Fortunately, one of the pupils had noticed that the wood at the centre of the tree trunk was discoloured and had deduced that it was most likely diseased and therefore needed to be removed. We discussed how ash die back could weaken the most impressive tree. Then, a week later the same pupil commented that a tree next to where the largest ash had once stood had also lost a large limb in a storm and we discussed how trees living close to each other provide mutual support.

As the weather became increasingly Autumnal the next phase of the project moved largely indoors. Not only did the pupils learn about the Wood Wide Web and how trees communicate through the soil, they also learnt how trees store carbon and mitigate climate change.

We also focused on asking the pupils to imagine being their favourite trees. For one pupil this was an orange tree in Ghana; another pupil chose to be the willow tunnel which had been cut down to the ground by the tree surgeons; another voice was from a rowan tree, yet another from the ash tree in the school grounds. All the voices the pupils found were beautifully articulated and below are some samples of the letters they wrote:

The pupils may have been from different year groups, but they all produced beautiful pieces that were shared with their teachers.

The following week the pupils were introduced to alder ink. Made by boiling alder cones for an hour and then sieving the remains, the alder cones produce a natural ink. The pupils were given old fashioned pens, a sample of a chemical ink and a sample of the alder ink, then asked to write out a section or a sentence, of their letters on a paper made from the cast-off remnants of t-shirts.

At first the writing was difficult, but practice improved their skills so when they were asked to be keynote speakers at MEEN’s Treemarkable event on the 16th November 2023, they were all able to present a sample of their work.

Five pupils from the team attended and did a wonderful job describing all the work they had done: they shared their knowledge on the Barcham Top Trunks Guide as to which trees hold the most carbon, managed to make everyone laugh about hazel nuts and Nuttella, and fielded questions from the intergenerational audience with aplomb and their contribution was very well received by all.

Following the event the team also have responsibility for planting several new trees in their school grounds, and hopefully, even more will emerge from the seeds that they planted in the early Autumn. Let’s hope all their trees grow and prosper.

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