Pupils at a prominent private school are "devastated" after thieves hacked down their huge ‘landmark’ tree - and took most of it away.

Staff at New Hall School, a catholic boarding school in Essex, said trespassers entered their grounds and felled the incredible 61-year-old horse chestnut tree.

They said the individuals had chopped down the roughly 9m (30ft) mature tree between 30 April and 1 May, near the front entrance.

And pictures showed staff surrounding the remains of the stump, which was left in the garden of a school-owned property called Gate Lodge, near Chelmsford.

Echo: Furious staff with the hacked down treeFurious staff with the hacked down tree (Image: SWNS)

Despondent head gardener Simon Boddy said it wasn’t just a shock that the thieves had taken down the tree but also managed to cart large amounts of it away.

He said: “It was not only a striking and much loved feature of the school’s landscape but also held ecological importance.

“The tree, which exceeded five cubic metres in volume, was protected due to its age and size, which included a 10m canopy. It is hard to believe that it is gone.”

The school said they had reported the matter to the police and now installed CCTV cameras to prevent similar acts from being repeated.

But Head of Estates, Lee Childs, said many were still in mourning at the loss of the pivotal tree.

Echo: Targeted - New Hall SchoolTargeted - New Hall School (Image: SWNS)

He added: “The school is profoundly affected by the loss of this tree. “Our head gardener is working with landscape specialists to reinstate a similar tree in this area.

“Sadly, it will not have the stature and impact of the original tree for many years.

“We hope that the police find the culprits and that they will be made to compensate us for their damage by funding the removal of the extensive tree roots and the establishment of the replacement tree.”

The school’s principal, Katherine Jeffrey, said that many of the students had been deeply saddened by the loss of the tree.

She said: “The staff and children who have been working in our gardening clubs and Eco Society are upset by the destruction of our tree.

“It is a shock that anyone would come onto private land and do this. I hope that the police investigation is successful.

Echo: The 'landmark' tree before it was chopped downThe 'landmark' tree before it was chopped down (Image: SWNS)

“The school has been working on a project to plant 400 trees on our site by our 400th anniversary in 2042, with over 200 trees planted in the last 5 years.

“Many of these were donated from the Woodland Trust and planted by the children themselves.

“This tree featured in our educational project about the horse chestnut tree, so naturally the children are sad at its loss.

“Trees are vital for eco-diversity and for supporting the wide range of wildlife here, from badgers, rabbits and muntjac deer, to bats and great crested newts.

“The incident occurred during nesting season, and there were signs of the destruction of birds' nests.

“We have also been in conversation with Historic England today, to discuss action to protect the setting of New Hall.”

The public is now being asked to help identify the perpetrators, with anyone who has CCTV or dashcam footage of the incident told to give it to Essex Police.