Special Report: Masks, film and bitterness in city tree war

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At present a small group of Sheffielders carrying out public works are turning up in the morning expecting to be shouted and sworn at by members of the public.

“I saw one of the protesters run up to an apprentice screaming in his face: ‘I hope you die,’ said Dave, an Amey arborist.

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“That’s just not right. She was walking up and down the road screaming and shouting at people.

“The apprentice was all of 21, and he just didn’t know what to do.

“The lad goes home and says ‘thanks very much,’ and then has to come in again tomorrow.”

The small number of men and women at the sharp end of the Streets Ahead contract have to do their best to stay calm and professional while fellow citizens call them scum, or compare them to Nazi stormtroopers.

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“I’ve had everyone from young men in their 30s to a retired lady in her 70s calling me a Nazi,” said Nigel.

“I think that’s highly offensive and disrespectful to people who fought the nazis in the war.

“They were responsible for killing millions of people, we’re just removing some trees as part of a contract.”

“I’ve had people thrust a camera into my face, and been called an assassin and an elderly gentleman called me Hitler and said I was singlehandedly destroying Sheffield,” said Diana.

“Is it acceptable to come to work and be vilified?

“Is that ok? I’m a reasonable professional, and I’m happy to go and speak to people, but there’s no need for that kind of abuse.”

‘Diana’, ‘Dave’ and ‘Nigel’ have been advised not to use their real names in this article by their employer, who wants to try and avoid the possibility of further abuse outside work, through email or on social media.

Nigel added that Amey staff have been followed as they leave work, and when a protester told him: ‘I hope I meet you in a pub sometime’ he took it as a personal threat.

Nigel has worked on Sheffield’s trees for many years, and says even the Streets Ahead work was carried out with very little abuse before the early morning fellings on Rustlings Road a year ago.

“Rustlings Road was a tipping point.

“Before that, the protesters were people who cared about trees, who I’ve got nothing but respect for.

“I care about trees myself – that’s why I got into this job. But now it’s about politics, civil liberties and governance.”

The recent development of masked protesters is another worry for the arborists – the balaclava wearing ‘bunnies’ who jump over the safety fence to stop felling operations usually just stand by the tree, but Amey staff say they can never really know the intentions of someone wearing a mask.

Tree surgeons are now routinely filmed and questioned as they work, and Nigel notes that the protesters can say what they like, while staff must take care about every word they say and every move they make.

“They have no-one to answer to, that’s why they speak to you like they do, they want you to react.

“They’re not beyond getting somebody sacked.

“I believe they’re trying to get these guys doing a tough job in tough circumstances into trouble.”

The Amey teams say there has been little abuse north of the city, where most trees marked for felling have now gone, and Nigel says many protesters are perfectly cordial with him and his colleagues, and that it’s unknown whether abusive protesters are members of STAG or any other groups.

Russell Johnson of Sheffield Tree Action Groups said: “Our policy is to maintain amicable relations with Amey and their subcontractors.

“One of the lies is that we intimidate the staff working for Amey or their subcontractors.

“We do not, and we never have.”

Nevertheless, two Amey arborists recently handed in their notice due to the difficulties and stress of their current work.

“I used to love the job,” said Nigel.

“But for the past six months I’ve often dreaded going to work because I’ve had to deal with these people every day.

“I was offered another job recently but I didn’t take it. I didn’t want them to make me quit.”

n This is the first in a series of features on Sheffield’s tree protest.

See David’s forthcoming piece in the Telegraph on ‘life on the front line’.

Let us know your views by emailing telegraph@jpress.co,uk