Tree ‘should have been felled’ before schoolgirl tragedy

A TREE which dropped a branch and killed a schoolgirl should have been removed because it was so decayed, an inquest heard.

Sophie Howard was killed when a branch from the black poplar fell on to her as she sat with friends on the afternoon of June 30, the result of an unpredictable phenomenon known as “summer branch drop”.

The 13-year-old, of Abbots Way, was at Middletons Road recreation ground in Yaxley because Sawtry Community College was closed due to the national teachers’ strike.

Sitting beneath the tree, they heard a loud crack and one of Sophie’s friends tried to pull her out of the way of the falling branch.

However, the branch struck her on the head and she suffered fatal injuries. Doctors from a nearby surgery worked to resuscitate her but she died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

Tree expert Robert Widd told an inquest in Huntingdon on Friday (December 2) that the tree, usually found in riverside settings, was in such a poor condition that he would have recommended its felling even before the tragedy.

He said a full inspection of the tree by Yaxley Parish Council would have revealed “a significant risk existed”, because stumps on the trunk indicated a history of limb shedding.

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Mr Widd’s full assessment revealed fungal infections, liquid weeping from the tree, evidence of a moth attack and a trunk that was “quite hollow”.

“These points should have been brought up at an earlier stage,” he added. “The decay had been in that tree for several years.”

He said that the branch – a four-foot section of which was brought into the inquest – had fallen because of summer branch drop, which was unrelated to the decay in other parts.

Summer branch drop occurs after prolonged periods of drought have dried the tree out. Heavy, brittle branches develop internal fractures and as the moisture is sucked up into them “they literally explode”, said Mr Widd.

When he first visited the site on July 3, he was surprised the poplar had not been fenced off and that Sophie’s friends and family were being allowed to lay flowers under the tree.

A second branch fell on July 6, also believed to have been due to summer branch drop, and the tree was fenced off before being felled on August 2.

Yaxley Parish Council chairman David Youles admitted that no regular tree monitoring programme had been in place, and that the council relied on the “common sense” of groundsmen, councillors and parishioners to flag up their concerns.

Since Sophie’s death, the council has complied with the Health and Safety Executive’s improvement notices by training its staff, putting in place a safety record and cutting back other trees.

Coroner David Morris said: “The death of any young person is a tragedy for the family, and in Sophie’s case it’s a tragedy for the wider community of Yaxley, many of whom knew her and enjoyed the pleasure of her company.

He issued a short narrative verdict, saying: “She died from injuries sustained when she was unexpectedly struck by a falling branch.

“Prior to this tragedy, the propensity of this tree and the phenomenon of summer branch drop had not previously been recognised.”

The HSE investigation is ongoing.