Our long partnership with Ancient Tree Forum has involved a fascinating exploration into the UK’s incredible tree heritage. We are pleased to welcome Hannah Solloway, Development Officer at the Ancient Tree Forum, as a guest blogger, to talk about how the V.I.Trees campaign links it all together:
“The Ancient Tree Forum (ATF) held its autumn field visit at Newnham Park near Plymouth. The site was described by our local Devon group as ‘a real gem of the South West’, with its many distinctive and wonderful ancient oaks, and yet the trees on this site, like many others, are not formally recognised and have little or no specific protection in law.
The Woodland Trust’s Very Important Trees campaign supports the work of the ATF and the Tree Council in calling for the establishment of national registers to record, and to help celebrate and protect our nationally important and best-loved trees.
A register would give recognition and status to nationally significant trees like those at Newnham Park.
Ancient tree measuring at Newnham Park. Image: courtesy Hannah Solloway
Image: courtesy Hannah Solloway
Why exactly are these trees so important?
The Ancient Tree Forum is a small charity which promotes the importance, care and protection of Britain’s ancient and other veteran trees. We seek to secure the long term future of ancient and other veteran trees and we value them in their own right, for qualities including their unique and characterful individual forms, their beauty, sheer size, and distinctive features like gnarled bark and hollowed trunks.
Connections with history
We also value our older trees for their connection with history, and recognise that they are often relics of former land-use and distinctive landscapes. Frequently, they are now found outside woodlands, in deer parks and country estates like Newnham Park, in hedgerows and even in cities.
Some individual trees are important to local communities as familiar landmarks, like the ‘lonely tree’ at Llanfyllin. So important is this Scots pine that when blown over by high winds, hundreds of locals rallied to cover its broken roots with tons of earth so that it will hopefully carry on living.
Other trees provide links to past generations of people who lived and worked among them, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree in Dorset which witnessed the formation of the first trade union, or the pollarded willows of the fenlands which were working trees, used for basket-making.
Survivors over centuries
A further value of ancient and veteran trees is that they have often tolerated and adapted to past stresses and changing circumstances.
As survivors they have demonstrated resilience and longevity, and therefore can be seen as an important genetic resource. They can help us understand the process of aging in trees, and should be valued as some of the oldest living organisms on earth.
Givers of life
And of course old trees are vital for supporting biodiversity through providing numerous habitats for wildlife, particularly the specialised and rare organisms which have co-evolved with them and are dependent upon them for their survival. The bark of ancient and veteran trees can host rare lichens, their hollows often provide roosting and nesting places for bats and birds, and decaying wood supports a suite of specialist insects.
At Newnham Park, we saw plenty of fungi associated with older trees, like the key heartwood-hollowing bracket fungi Beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica), Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) and the much scarcer Hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa). Amongst the beetles spotted by our invertebrate expert was the flat bark beetle (Pediacus dermestoides) which is rare across much of its European range, but likes the cool and damp conditions of Southern Britain.
So why are they not officially recognised?
Our trees are not recognised in the same way that buildings, ancient monuments or historic parks and gardens are. One reason is that ancient and veteran trees are not systematically surveyed or mapped (as ancient woodlands are) and can therefore be overlooked and undervalued. Damage, threats and losses may go unnoticed, diminishing this already scarce heritage.
Whilst the Ancient Tree Inventory, a citizen science database, holds data on many important trees there are a great many that are not yet listed in the Inventory; for example it wasn’t until the ATF’s visit to Newnham, when local recorders had access to the site, that data was recorded about its ancient oaks.
There is also a common misconception that our ancient and veteran trees are protected by Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs). In reality these powers are rarely used outside urban areas or where there is no known threat, and councils are not obliged to use them. Most TPOs are made when trees are threatened by development – if that threat is known in advance. For councils to use the power, trees are also expected to have amenity value which can be interpreted as a requirement for public visibility.
It is a stated aim of the Ancient Tree Forum that there should be no further avoidable loss of ancient trees. To prevent further loss, we need to ensure trees are protected from harmful activities like inappropriate pruning and root damage, and are prevented from being cut down, or killed through shading by other trees.
We also need to make sure there is positive, sympathetic management of trees and their surroundings, as detailed in our book ‘Ancient and other veteran trees: further guidance on management’. These trees are vulnerable and may have specific needs. This may require costly, specialist care, and we would like to see grants or rewards being made available to landowners for good management, in order to avoid neglect of or unintentional harm to this irreplaceable part of our national heritage.
Ultimately, we believe our ancient and veteran trees should have the same recognition, protection and care as our historic buildings.
Learn more with the ATF
Hannah Solloway of the Ancient Tree Forum
For more information about the Ancient Tree Forum, details of our next field visit (in March 2015, focusing on ancient and veteran orchards and fruit trees) and to sign up for our newsletter contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
You can help give Very Important Trees the VIP status these living monuments deserve – please show your support for a register of nationally important trees.