To Save A Sacred Grove: fighting the expansion of Luton Airport, guest blogger Dr. Simon Leadbeater @OurSacredGrove

Climate change is a problem because it drives extinction. What some of us forget even acknowledging this truth, is that climate change is thereby a source of fathomless suffering..........

Sentiments in Dr. Leadbeater's planning statement to the Luton Airport Inquiry (27.9.22)  have become a universal language amongst those concerned about our land and its use. He asks the question, 'how can our woodland possibly survive in a rapidly and radically changing world'? This resonates in the night sweats regarding our own local plots, whether it be the hedgehogs on the allotment, the wax caps in the cemetery, or the bats flying along the river. His introduction and statement are reproduced below and Margo is pictured above. All photos are from Simon and Toni's Sacred Grove.
He begins,
'I am going to speak to rather than read from my submitted statement (Ref. IP-06). I am taking this approach in order to contextualise, to personalise, based on the off-grid life my wife and I lead in a woodland called Priors Wood, five miles east of the airport. This Inquiry will hear from experts in climate change and those forensically detailing poor governance. 
No one else here, however, starts their day being invariably woken by planes, whose morning routine then consists of caring for various rescue animals culminating in hand-feeding an old sheep called Margo who can no longer feed for herself, before I turn attention to my perennial fret concerning how our woodland can possibly survive in a rapidly and radically changing world. 

At the December 2013 planning committee I tried to encourage councillors to consider a more global outlook by quoting Thomas Paine: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” On the consequences of not listening the University of Maryland’s research speaks far more eloquently than I ever can. Scroll down the link, and you will witness the exponential spread in wildfires from the safety of your laptops.

Now, some mainstream narratives perceive climate change as a problem in and of itself, as threatening our timber supplies, undermining the foundations of our castles even, creating food security issues – everything couched within human-centred discourse. But that focus is wholly wrong.

Climate change is a problem because it drives extinction. What some of us forget even acknowledging this truth, is that climate change is thereby a source of fathomless suffering; human lives are lost and 3 bn animals were killed or displaced by Australia’s forest fires of 2020. Yet, back in 2013 the officer’s report recommending approval stated that the increase in flights from 12 to 18 mppy would represent “an extremely small change,” a phrase lifted verbatim from the applicant’s planning application.

Something similar has already been said today; ‘imperceptible,’ ‘negligible.’ However incremental the potential change, this Inquiry, I respectfully suggest, needs to be framed within choices which either accelerate and broaden suffering, or not.

Whatever complex arguments Inspectors may have to wrestle with, seeing and hearing is believing. I invite all the Inspectors and their support teams to visit our woodland. If you come, please time your visit to coincide with easterly departures.

If you come, I will first introduce you to my sheep and explain that the piles of branches in their field are the remains of the conservation hedges I had to feed them as they had no grass this summer. And I might suggest you contact my agricultural supplier who cannot guarantee me hay this winter.

Then within the woodland itself I will show you the abandoned badger sett and explain that when the ground is as hard as concrete badgers cannot feed. Then I will show you the pond that dried up in July, and the upturned dustbin lids I had to replenish with 20 litres of water every day for the thirsty deer and other animals.


When I thought about what to say today I suddenly realised that all I have to do, is to look a Fallow doe in the face, and ask her, what is it you would want? The answer then becomes obvious. Perhaps not here, in this august council chamber, but in our woodland you may find it easier to think in the way I do.

Finally, I would introduce you to some of our trees. Our Oaks are not particularly old, dating maybe from the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade [of the 1854 Crimean War], though some of our Hornbeams probably predate Agincourt {1415]. But the trees I would particularly like to introduce you to, you may be unfamiliar with. 

Most of us think of acorns growing into single trees, but not all trees develop that way. There is an Aspen grove in America estimated to be 80,000 years young and on the face of it comprises some 47,000 trees across 43 ha. But in fact, each tree, or stem, belongs to one single organism - one clone – one enormous living being.

We have an aspen grove. Ours is smaller, but only by spending £1000s over 20 years have we discovered how big it actually is - at around 1ha – bigger than a football pitch – and though probably much younger than the American version may also be 1000s of years old. Imagine. To think, something alive in Hertfordshire may be older than England, to have come into being before Christ, or even from earlier than the time when the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle began the catastrophic transformation in which nature, once a subject revered, became converted into an object to be used. It would thus, perhaps, have comprised what our forebears called a Sacred Grove.

I have come here today simply to say that I wish our Sacred Grove to endure beyond my time. Our Grove is not tidy. But I invite you to stand in its midst and then to reflect on the questions before you. At that time, in that place, the answer will become obvious.

With ever more flights, being able to continue living in the woodland will become increasingly tenuous, and hence my ability to care for it. Of course that upsets me. But that is not it. I feel a drawn-out bereavement because my woodland is dying, and I am powerless in the face of such insuperable odds. Is Luton Airport solely responsible for this? No, but in part, and the officers and councillors, Luton Rising Managers, wish to accelerate and increase their contribution to the harm being caused.

This attempt to further expand the airport could not be worse timed. In July 2022 the UK surpassed 40 degrees for the first time in recorded history, and declared a drought. There was, to quote the BBC, an “intense series of heatwaves… paired with unusually dry conditions, [which] led to a summer of extremes with records in terms of temperature, drought – the worst in 500 years - and fire activity in many parts of Europe”  (McGrath, 2022). 

The portents suggest worse is to come, as after the pandemic CO2 emissions rebounded and reached their highest in over 4 million years (Roston, 2022; IEA, 2022). What does that mean, what am I seeing? A few days ago I saw a wood pigeon building a nest; as if by some awesome switch, from frog and toad spawn spilling out of puddles and the ponds we have created, two years ago this vernal magic suddenly vanished. 

We no longer have resident badgers in the wood. Once upon a time planting trees in November, giving them time for their roots to grow a little before the dormant period, was enough to mostly ensure their survival. With dry springs and searing summer heat, I have to water them, wheeling gallons of water 100s of metres through the wood in my attempt to keep trees alive. 

The arrival of autumn is a relief, except, where are the toadstools and other fungi we remember from 20 years ago, cloaking the woodland floor and covering all the deadwood, standing or fallen. Now, mostly we get a few Fly agarics, the red spotted mushrooms most of us recognise as toadstools. 

This represents perhaps my greatest fear. Everyone here will have heard of the wood-wide-web, but most won’t know that the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and their trees is an obligate one, that is, without one there cannot be the other. No toadstools equals no trees. Writing in 2000 Paul Stamets, the notable mycologist, stated these types of fungi had declined by 50 per cent already. What is it that kills these essential fungi? Nitrogen deposits. 

A publication in Nature earlier this year suggested levels above a certain point negatively impact forest mycorrhizas, and Luton Rising’s own data suggests local woods already have nitrogen levels above this threshold. I was not exaggerating when I said our woodland was dying. I can feel it. The signs are there. Is it any wonder that I hate Luton’s planes flying over our wood.

The plight of forests globally

When councillors approved the expansion to 19 mppa they had, according to the FOI response I received in March 2022, not received any training on climate change. How can it be right for people to make decisions on projects worsening climate change to have had no special training concerning the implications of those decisions. For that reason alone the expansion should not be permitted. 

As, however, this is a subject close to my heart let me convey a taste of what is to come. Forests cover one third of the Earth, down from two thirds. If humanity carries on progressing with carbon intensive economic growth, forests as we know them, will be eliminated by a combination of disease, pests, drought and fire. Hitherto their main threat has been logging, but there are signs climate change will become the main cause of their demise. 

The cycle of natural fire and recoveries are being disrupted, meaning that woodlands are beginning to lose their age old ability to regenerate themselves. If becoming an established pattern this would have incalculable consequences for all the Earth’s inhabitants including us.

Wildfires are also becoming bigger, hotter and more frequent. Reichter, et al trace the growth in wildfires from 2001 to 2021 resulting in the apocalyptic vista of swathes of Russia, the north Americas, and southern Australia, all on fire, the latter of whom lost forests on the scale of Florida between 2019 and 2020 (Welch, 2022: 49). The world really is on fire!

Thank you for listening.

Dr Simon Leadbeater 


27th September, 2022  



BBC, (2020), ‘Australia’s fires ‘killed or harmed three billion animals,’’, 28 July 2020:

Caudullo, G., de Rigo, D., (2016), Populus tremula in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats. In: San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., de Rigo, D., Caudullo, G., Houston Durrant, T., Mauri, A. (Eds.), European Atlas of Forest Tree Species. Publ. Off. EU, Luxembourg

International Energy Agency (IEA), (2022), Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2021. Global emissions rebound sharply to highest ever level, March 2022:

McDermott, M., (2018), ‘Utah Aspen Grove is 80,000 Years Old,’, October 11, 2018:

McGrath, M., (2022), ‘Climate change: Europe’s warm summer shatters records,’, 9 September, 2022:

Richter, J., MacCarthy, J., Weisse, M., Tyukavina, S., (2022), ‘Two Decades of Fire-Driven Loss in Unprecedented Detail,’ Global Forest Watch, August 17, 2022:

Roston, E., ‘CO2 reaches its highest level in more than 4 million years,’, June 8, 2021

Stamets, P., (2000), Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Third Edition, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley

Suz, L.M., Bode, J., Byrne, A., van der Linde, S., and Bidartondo, M.I., (2022), ‘Nutrients, Carbon, Mycorrhizas and Tipping Points in Forests,’ Quarterly Journal of Forestry, January 2022, Vol.  116, No.  1, pp.  36 – 43.

Welch, C., (2022), ‘The future of forests,’ National Geographic, ‘Saving Forests Special Issue,’ May 2022




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