Protesters are claiming victory after contractors were prevented from working on an elm which has become one of the symbols of the long-running battle over street tree felling in Sheffield.

Around 40 people with banners ringed the Chelsea Road Elm, in the Nether Edge area of the city, on Monday as a team arrived to “prune” the tree.

After a short stand-off and a conversation between the protesters and an executive of contractors, Amey, the workers left.

Sheffield City Council said it was “incredibly disappointing that a number of individuals sought to unlawfully prevent essential safety work”.

Amey director Darren Butt talks to protesters at the Chelsea Road Elm, Sheffield (Dave Higgens/PA)

The protesters say the tree is a rare Huntingdon Elm which survived Dutch Elm Disease.

In 2016, it came runner-up in a Woodland Trust Tree of the Year poll.

All sides agree it is home to a colony of endangered White-Letter Hairstreak Butterfly and Amey – the firm running the council’s contract which includes street tree maintenance – is planning to relocate the insects’ eggs.

Amey account director Darren Butt was told by protesters: “We are not prepared to let you do any work today in preparation for the council felling this tree.”

Mr Butt said he was not there to fell the tree and no date had yet been fixed for the felling.

In a statement on the Sheffield Tree Action Groups’ Facebook page, Heather Russell said: “Amey said they planned to remove a dead branch and remove the eggs of the endangered White-Letter Hairstreak Butterfly and attempt to re-locate them to a different tree. A colony of White-Letter Hairstreak Butterfly have never been successfully transplanted before.”

Councillor Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for Environment and Street Scene at Sheffield City Council, said: “It is incredibly disappointing that a number of individuals sought to unlawfully prevent essential safety works being carried out on an elm tree on Chelsea Road today.

“The tree, which is showing signs of significant decay, has to be pruned as in its current state of deterioration, it is causing a safety risk to members of the public.”

Mr Lodge said the council has worked with Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation on a plan to safeguard the butterflies.

He said: “We only need a strong gust of wind for a branch to fall off the tree and cause serious harm to a person or nearby property and we simply cannot allow this to happen.”

The stand-off is just the latest in the ongoing and long-running dispute that has its origin in a 25-year £2.2 billion private finance initiative agreement the council signed with Amey in 2009.

The contract includes a huge programme to resurface thousands of miles of Sheffield’s pothole-ridden road system and, as part of this, Amey is tasked with maintaining roadside trees.

The council says only a small proportion of the city’s 36,000 street trees are being removed because they are diseased or dangerous, but protesters say many of the trees are being felled simply because their roots are getting in the way of resurfacing methods.