Guest post: National Trust

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.

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

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.

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

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.

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

Image: courtesy of Brian Muelaner

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.

Brian Muelaner. Image: National Trust

Brian Muelaner. Image: National Trust

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.”

Brian Muelaner

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.


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
This entry was posted in Campaigning, Climate Change, Conservation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Guest post: National Trust

  1. Derek West says:

    Is the National Trust the nature lovers branch of the Conservative Party?.

  2. apolden says:

    Very interesting article about a very important matter. It’s a pity the author did not include the damage likely to be done to some Ancient Trees, nt to mention Ancient Woodlands, if the High Speed 2 train goes ahead.

  3. Ash says:

    Another good article! I’ve signed up to VITrees! Have you?

  4. Nicholas Heins says:

    Surely the National Trust have a responsibility to help protect not only their buildings but also the building’s landscapes including any Ancient Trees which are an integral part of a building’s/estate’s history? – to suggest that members just want a day out sounds like a cop out to me.

  5. Roderick Leslie says:

    I’m afraid it has always struck me that the Trust is far too ready to go along with the status quo – yes, legally it can’t do anything about those tenancies but as Brian says if it took the role in national life many of us feel it should do it could change things – for example, through legal protection. However, the new DG’s pretty clear statement that the Trust is not a campaigning organisation and should go along with the majority of the membership who just want a day out is far from encouraging.

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