In the Surrey town of Weybridge in the borough of Elmbridge, there is anger, suspicion and no little nervousness. A mystery tree-feller, who has in recent weeks taken a chainsaw to trees in the area under cover of darkness, has returned to launch another destructive spree.
“This person is playing a game with us,” said Cameron Flynn, 21, who set up the Facebook group Elmbridge Tree Patrol, which has logged almost 50 incidents of trees being felled, their branches left strewn across roads, paths and in the river.
Yet, despite late-night patrols and hours spent trawling CCTV footage and using number plate recognition technology, police are still no nearer to identifying the perpetrator or perpetrators. “We have followed up on a number of leads given by the community, but still there are insufficient grounds to identify a suspect,” Surrey police said in a statement.
Flynn, a catering student from Weybridge, said: “Whoever it is, they had a break for a week or two. But, now they are back, and chopping more down.”
Among the first attacked were trees on the Thames path between Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames, and in Cobham. Then things went quiet. But the lumberjack returned last weekend, seemingly more confident and audacious than before.
Among eight trees felled on Saturday and Sunday were two in a quiet residential street – a hawthorn and a cherry tree just bursting into blossom.
“We heard absolutely nothing, and we were all up,” said Rachel Taylor, 49, a healer who lives near the trees targeted. Her son was outside waiting for a taxi at 9.45pm, and the trees were intact. Yet at 11pm a neighbour returned home, and by then they were gone.
“It’s very unsettling,” said Taylor. “The tree on the left was particularly beautiful. People often stopped and took pictures of it.”
Her neighbour Janet Marshall, 78, said: “Everyone is very upset. People are outraged, particularly as we need trees to protect the environment. It’s scary to think about it.” The trees had been in situ for the more than 30 years she has lived on the road.
On the Elmbridge Tree Patrol Facebook page, which now has in excess of 1,000 members, theories abound. One is that the criminal damage to the trees has become a kind of challenge, started by one person but continued by others.
Some believe the culprit may be travelling in a red car, others that the car is light-coloured, while yet others think they may be travelling by bike. Residents are looking for patterns and clues.
Meanwhile, everyone is a suspect. “Everybody is looking at each other with suspicion,” said Flynn, who did not rule out the possibility of the culprit even being a member of one the community groups. “He’s probably enjoying all of our responses. He is feeding off it, most likely.” That is assuming they are a he.
Chainsaws can be noisy, but the professionals now making safe those trees that have been destroyed believe the perpetrator is probably using a quieter battery-operated chainsaw, and one with a long blade.
It would take just 30 seconds to cut down each tree. The severed trunk and branches are left where they fall. It is costing the local council about £100 to remove each one felled and, with 48 incidents logged so far, the bill is approaching £5,000.
Local people have been told not to approach any suspects, not least because they are using a chainsaw.
Outside a Sainsbury’s Local, workmen were chopping up a beautiful mountain ash, just coming into leaf, which was felled on Saturday, with its trunk and leaves blocking the pavement. It posed a particular hazard to blind people, said Flynn.
While trees have been felled across a broad area, one hotspot has been the Thames path in front of the Weybridge Canoe Club, and near to the bridge leading to Desborough Island, an artificial island in the Thames.
Joggers, walkers and cyclists are now confronted with piles of fresh sawdust next to the stumps of at least eight trees. The branches from the bigger ones were still trailing in the river as Environment Agency workers began making the area safe.
The culprit was unskilled, judging from the uneven cut, said one worker, who added: “He’s going to hurt himself soon, if he doesn’t watch out.”
“Why would you cut a tree and not collect the wood?” asked Flynn. “It’s just pure, mindless vandalism. He has cut memorial trees down, making many families upset.” Other trees had birds nesting in them, he added.
Insp Bert Dean, the Elmbridge borough commander, has appealed to residents to upload any digital footage of suspected sightings of whoever is behind the attacks. “It is incredibly sad that someone is destroying these trees. Not only are they a haven for wildlife but they bring much pleasure to the community,” he said.