IT WAS disappearing birdsong which was to change the life of Chilterns artist Sue Graham and her family.
Many of her paintings are inspired by the local landscape and a series of her oil paintings which she started more than 10 years ago reflected her love of the dawn chorus.
But the painter could hardly have foreseen quite how that project would ultimately lead her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
“When I started doing the Dawn Chorus paintings around 2008, there was a piercing resonance to the sounds I heard in my garden at four in the morning,” Sue recalls. “But even in the short time we have lived here there are fewer birds singing. That’s happening all over the place.”
What was obvious to Sue in her garden at Prestwood near Great Missenden was soon hitting the national headlines.
A survey in 2013 showed that in some cases the decline was dramatic and worrying. The sounds of the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are enshrined in British folklore, yet populations of both summer migrants and many resident species have dropped in recent years.
The scale of the problem had soon become apparent after the family moved back from America in 2002. “We always enjoyed the outdoors, but if you go out walking there’s always something missing,” she says. “None of the ground-nesting birds are there any more.”
The missing songbirds featured in a vivid series of paintings, but aside from inspiring her art, environmental worries were beginning to play a bigger part in the lives of the artist and her research scientist husband Gabriel Waksman – a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology whose work had taken them to New York and Missouri.
By 2016, with the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it seemed as if things were coming to a head.
Husband Gabriel was only too well aware that in almost 30 years as an academic and scientist, he had clocked up thousands of air miles travelling to international conferences, seminars and lectures at foreign institutions.
Many scientists and academics are increasingly worried about the environmental cost of such international travel – but Gabriel wanted to do something practical about it.
If travelling to conferences must remain part of a scientist’s life, what might be the best way to offset the carbon that will inevitably be released? The answer, it seemed to him, was to find a way that scientists, academics and others worried about the environment could offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in groves.
In 2016, he teamed up with a couple of friends and the charity All Things Small and Green was born.
Writing in Nature magazine in February 2020, he explained: “Governmental action will be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, but individual responsibility has a major part to play.”
His charity allows air travellers to calculate their carbon emissions and work out how many native trees they need to plant to offset those, using a simple formula. The trees can then be planted in groves set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands.
With more than 40 planting sites, the charity has overseen the planting of almost two million trees, growing thousands in its tree nursery and creating acres of new forest.
“I was especially drawn to native tree planting,” says Gabriel. “Carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I liked the idea of coupling carbon fixing with reconnecting to a wonder of nature such as a native woodland.”
Companies and universities can ask for groves to be set up for them – and he has also been in touch with partners in Spain and France to explore ways of allowing localised groves to be planted in other European locations.
The latest project is a grove which will allow French scientists, academics, and researchers to offset their carbon emissions by planting native trees closer to home.
“It is important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we work with are native,” he explains. “Native afforestation and reforestation increase biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems. By contrast, monoculture conifer plantations — wrongly favoured by some governments — destroy biodiversity and damage natural ecosystems.”
The tree planting mission didn’t stop with the charity though. Sue found herself equally inspired by the need to do something more for the planet – particularly as the mother to two sons in their 20s.
“It was time to think about the legacy of what we leave and the only thing that would make us feel slightly better about putting two extra people on the planet,” she says.
The outcome was their dramatic decision to purchase a croft on the remote Scottish island of Gigha, with the aim of launching their own family rewilding project.
The 13-acre croft was once home to an old oat mill, although that is not habitable at the moment.
With their two sons working in Scotland, it might not have seemed so crazy to look at buying land in the area – but by any standards the croft is remote, Sue admits, although the location is picturesque too, looking out of the nearby island of Jura.
The island – with a population of under 200 – lies west of Glasgow off the coast of the Kintyre peninsula, accessed by ferry from Tayinloan, a small village about midway between Tarbert and Campbeltown.
“You think, ‘How much time have I got left?’ and of course it was always a project we should have started 20 years ago,” Sue admits.
But that didn’t stop them going ahead with the plan – and in November 2019 the first phase of their mission involved planting some 1300 trees on a three-acre site on the island.
“Planting trees is the best thing we can do for the future,” Sue insists. “I know it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon capture, but I needed to sleep better at night.”
It’s an enthusiasm her husband shares – although the project is separate from his charity activities: “Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy,” he says.
“This is also one of the most selfless activities I have taken part in. A native woodland takes decades to come to maturity, so the results of my tree planting will hopefully be enjoyed by people much younger than me.”
The tiny saplings were selected with the help of the Woodland Trust to ensure they were best suited to the island’s soil and climate – a mixture of hazel, willow, birch, alder, oak and rowan.
“It gives us the opportunity in a very beautiful location to do something for the planet that we need to do for our psychological well-being,” says Sue, a self-taught artist with a degree in modern languages from Oxford University who loves walking, gardening, wildlife and cooking, as well as painting.
“I can barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting. I have had various other ‘real’ jobs but somehow my heart was never in them,” she says. “Somebody once asked me to reflect on why it is that I paint: the question has sat with me for years but I think the answer is this: to communicate feelings and ideas and to be accepted for who I am.”
Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks which have forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year while she undergoes cancer treatment.
But she remains unfailingly optimistic and determined about the island project and the prospects for their thousands of saplings, planted with such enthusiasm by the five-strong family team with two staff members and volunteers from the Woodland Trust.
With fertile soil and good climate – and friends on the islands keeping an eye on things – there’s every reason to hope the project will boost local biodiversity over the next couple of years.
Says Sue: “I was more afraid of looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking that we couldn’t do it.”
It’s also a welcome escape from health concerns and the challenges posed by chemotherapy.
“It’s going to be really interesting – and it’s nice to be able to think about something positive and lovely,” she says.
POSTSCRIPT: We were very sad to report on Sue’s untimely death in Janaury 2022.