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Who attacked the trees? Halifax public gardens visitors baffled two years after crime


Many of the trees in a Victorian-era public garden in the centre of Halifax that were attacked almost two years ago are showing remarkable signs of recovery, while visitors to the urban oasis are still puzzled by the mysterious unsolved crime.

In the summer of 2022, some time between July 25 and 26, a person or group scaled the fence of the Halifax Public Gardens and hacked away at the bark around the circumference of about 30 trees, girdling them -- a method of killing trees without cutting them down. The trees targeted, all between 50 and 250 years old, were attacked with what appeared to be a hatchet or small axe.

The girdling incident has left a lasting impact on the community and remains a topic of conversation among tree-lovers, who are still baffled by the vandalism almost two years later.

"It's just horrible," Lois McVannel, a Halifax woman who often visits the gardens, said in an interview Tuesday. "And the biggest question is, what was the point? What was the statement they were making?"

She and her friends make sure to check out the damaged trees on walks through the park. Gesturing to a 200-year-old massive weeping beech tree that was heavily girdled, she said, "I always want to see how this tree is coming along."

"We go and sit with her sometimes. Just to be there with her," she said of the beech.

"And she looks quite well. They've taken good care of it and it seems to be scabbing over. So I'm very pleased that the public gardens and the public in general have taken this so seriously."

Stan Kochanoff, an arborist of nearly 50 years who worked on treating the girdled trees at the gardens, says he is hopeful they are healing because he sees signs of callousing on their barks and because the trees have "budded out" -- meaning they sprang leaves or flowers this spring.

"Even the worst ones that were really girdled badly have come along, so it's very encouraging," Kochanoff said in a recent interview.

"That callousing is kind of like a bridge between open areas. It allows the cambium layer, which is the growing layer, to start to roll over and heal that wound."

While Kochanoff is optimistic about the trees' recovery and ongoing work to help them heal, he still wonders who was behind the girdling.

"Whoever it was knew what they were doing. And they obviously knew which trees to attack, too they knew the valuable trees," he said, noting that significant damage was done to a London plane tree and the massive weeping beech, both of which are around 200 years old.

"Maybe someday someone will hear some person in a bar bragging about it and turn the person in."

Kochanoff said he believes the 2022 tree attacks are unique in North America. "I ran it by some of my associates in the American Society of Consulting Arborists to see if they've ever encountered something like this, and no one had ever heard of anything like this," he said.

Judith Cabrita, the chair of community group Friends of the Public Gardens, says people visiting the information centre are regularly "asking how the trees are doing, and lamenting that it happened."

"Like many, we don't walk around the gardens without taking a look at the trees and seeing how they're doing," she said. Gardens visitors tell the volunteers at the information centre they are baffled by the crime, and can't fathom who would damage such a special place, Cabrita said.

In 2022, the Friends of the Public Gardens and the chair of its foundation put forward a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The offer was in effect until Dec. 30, 2022, but no leads came through, and the Halifax Regional Police closed their investigation in January 2023.

Const. Ann Giffin said in an email there was no evidence to identify a suspect in the tree-girdling incident, adding that police would reopen the file if new information comes to light.

Since the vandalism, overnight security has been ramped up at the gardens, and cameras have been installed.

The Halifax Regional Municipality declined to make staff available for an interview, and said in an emailed statement "most of the damaged trees leafed out as expected once again this year, although we are beginning to lose some of the more seriously vandalized specimens."

"It may take several years of continued tree growth to see the full extent of the damage," the statement said.

A municipality spokesperson later said two small trees have been removed and two mature trees did not leaf out this year.

Kochanoff said it's true it will take time to know the fate of the trees, and said next year will be telling.

"I think we'll know really next year, the third year, and if they all bud out and they look healthy, I think we won the battle," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2024.

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