There are no more than a handful of ancient tree specialists in the UK. These passionate folk can talk with real knowledge about these incredible organisms. We’re fortunate at the Woodland Trust to have Jill Butler to teach and inspire us. At the National Trust, which cares for more ancient trees on its estate than any other non-government organisation in Europe, Brian Muelaner played a similar role. We’re very pleased to welcome a guest blog from Brian about our nationally significant trees, also known as ‘V.I.Trees’:
“The National Trust has recorded about 35,000 Very Important Trees (formally known as Trees of National Special Interest), with another 10,000 or so still to record and it may well own more ‘V.I.Trees’ than any other private owner in Europe.
Are all these spectacular trees safe for future generations to enjoy?
As the very recently retired Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust, I am well informed to say “NO”, not even within the Trust are these internationally important trees truly protected.
I will quickly say that all of the real jewels in the Trust’s crown are safe. Trees like Newton’s apple, the very tree Sir Isaac Newton sat beneath at his family home at Woolsthorpe Manor when he contemplated his theory on gravity; or the Ankerwycke yew opposite Runneymede which many believe is where the beginning of democracy began with the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1216; or the Tolpuddle Martyr’s tree under which the first ever trade union began.
Many more still are at risk
The thousands of special trees that live in parklands or farmland managed by tenant farmers are at greatest risk. Unfortunately the National Trust is often helpless to force the tenants to manage the land in ways favourable for the trees. Some forms of historic tenancies last for three generations and the landowner cannot alter the conditions of the tenancy during this whole period.
If these trees enjoyed legal status, much like listed buildings, then there would be a legal onus on farmers to ensure they didn’t damage them through their agricultural activities. Without this status the trees are at the mercy of the farming practice taking place around them.
Under the roots
All trees have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi which live beneath the ground and connect directly to their fine feeder roots. The fungi are far better at extracting water and the basic raw elements needed for growth such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus from the soil through their far more extensive network of hyphae. The mycorrhizal fungi share the nutrients and water with the trees’ roots, passing them up through the roots, up the trunk and branches to the leaves, where the tree can convert these basic elements into complex sugars and carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Fungi have no chlorophyll so are unable to utilise the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. The tree then passes a share of these newly created carbohydrates, such as sugar, to the fungi so both organisms benefit from the exchange. These fungi also protect the tree from pathogens invading the tree through its semi-porous root hairs, not wanting the tree providing it with high energy food to be harmed.
There are many modern farming activities which damage this relationship and reduce the life of trees. Growing crops like wheat or barley require high concentrations of inputs such as pesticides to kill off weed growth and fertilisers to increase yields, both of which damage the mycorrhizal community below the surface. Often the tree’s roots are also physically damaged by ploughing beneath the crown of the tree.
Above the ground
Even in pastures which are grazed by cattle and or sheep the trees can be inadvertently damaged through inappropriate activity such as overgrazing in wet months when the soil can become a mud bath.
Horses will often strip the bark off the lower part of the tree allowing decay fungi access into the functional sapwood of the tree which damages the tree’s ability to transport nutrients and water.
What could make a difference?
If these trees had formal recognition as being nationally important for their biodiversity, landscape enhancement, heritage associations or interpretation of the historic landscape, then damaging farming practices would not be tolerated.
At present all of these activities take place across the country, even on land owned by a conservation organisation like the National Trust and it may take a public outcry to influence our government to do something meaningful about this tragedy.”
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.