See also Guide to Great Places to see Ancient and Unusual Trees
Ancient treasure is waiting to be found across the UK, much of it even older than many of our cathedrals and castles. The UK has the largest concentration of ancient trees in Northern Europe. A survey revealed that 80 per cent of people don’t know that the UK has the most ancient trees in Northern Europe. Ancient trees can live to be up to 5000 years old and are vital to the UK landscape, history and wildlife.
UK Biodiversity Action Plan identifies that broadleaved woodland supports almost twice as many species of conservation concern (232) as any other habitat. It has 78 globally threatened and rapidly declining species. 46 species of all sorts of things (plants, insects, fungi etc) have gone extinct in the last 100 years. In 1980, native species accounted for only five per cent of trees planted in the UK. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of conservation organisations like the Woodland Trust, by 2000, this figure had risen to over 40 per cent.
Ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD. It is the last remaining link with the original wooded landscape, which covered the UK after the last Ice Age and now accounts for only around 2 per cent of the UK’s land use. Nearly 50 per cent of the ancient woodland that still remained in the 1930s, has since been either lost to agriculture and development, or damaged, mainly by conifer plantation. Of the remaining ancient woodland in the UK, 85 per cent has no legal designation. Ancient woodland is fragmented; eight out of 10 woods are less than 20 hectares (50 acres) in size and nearly 50 per cent of ancient woods are less than five hectares.
The Woodland Trust is the sponsor of the Ancient Tree Hunt, which records the trees people find and their stories at Ancient Tree Hunt Anyone from children to adults can take part by finding living history in their parks and gardens and helping the Woodland Trust to create the first interactive map of ancient trees. This is an important step towards safeguarding these British treasures.
“We’re asking people to look out for and record trees which are particularly old, fat and gnarled,” said Woodland Trust president, Clive Anderson, “so obviously I am just the person to get this message across. The sort of size we are after is a tree, perhaps an oak, which is so big that it would take you and at least two or more friends to hug it all the way around, finger tip to finger tip. Perhaps you pass a great old tree every day; it probably has a great story. We’d love you to go online and tell us about it.”
Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, explains: “Different trees become ancient at different times, but an ancient oak is likely to be at least 400 years old. Many are much older, and yews can live for thousands of years. We think there may be half a million ancient treasures to be found.”
William the Conqueror is responsible for much of the amazing legacy of ancient trees in the UK because of the Royal Hunting Forests he established after 1066. Old, fat trees are a direct link to the culture, history and heritage as the trees we see now may well have provided timber for significant events in history. Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was built from over 6000 oaks. English and Welsh archers using yew (often taken from churchyard yews) and ash longbows helped Henry V win the battle of Agincourt.
Ancient trees are home to thousands of species of plants and animals, including many rare and threatened species that aren’t found anywhere else. As they get older, the trees develop holes, nooks and crannies and dead and rotting wood, perfect homes for lots of insects. Groups of ancient trees growing together are the most important of all as the variety of nooks and crannies they provide creates an amazing community of wildlife.
Ancient Tree Facts
The oldest tree in the UK and perhaps in Europe is believed to be the Fortingall Yew near Callendar in Scotland, and is thought to be 5,000 years old.
An oak spends 300 years growing, 300 years resting and 300 years declining gracefully.
Oliver Rackham wrote: ‘Ten thousand oaks of one hundred years are no substitute for one five hundred year old oak tree’.
The fattest oak tree in Britain would take about nine adults to hug it, finger tip to finger tip.
There are 500,000 listed buildings in the UK and perhaps as many unlisted ancient trees to be found.
A hollow tree is often a healthy strong tree. The decaying wood produced as it hollows acts as extra food for the tree which might even send down aerial roots inside the hollow to make the most of the rich pickings.
Trees shrink as they become ancient, becoming shorter and squatter. It’s a great survival strategy as it means they can cope better with high winds.
Ancient yews are often found in churchyards – but are much older than the churches, as they mark places that were considered sacred to pre-Christian religions as well.
Lots of our ancient trees had to work hard for a living – they were cut regularly as pollards to provide fuel, fodder, timber, and food.
It can take 250 years before a tree is a suitable home for some very particular lichens.
Queen Elizabeth I was sitting beneath an ancient oak in Hatfield Park when she first heard that she would be the next Queen of England.
The Bowthorpe Oak is very fat and so hollow that people used to dine inside it – and there is a record of 20 people sitting down inside it on one occasion.
The King of Limbs – a famous oak in Savernake Forest is just one of many oaks believed to be older than England which became a state in 927.
The Milking Tree in Northamptonshire was considered so important in the landscape back in 1790 that a naval report, commissioned by King George declared that it must not be sacrificed for ship building. The tree can still be visited today.
About the Woodland Trust
Woodland Trust woods are sympathetically managed for wildlife and public enjoyment. Woodland Officers organise their specialist care throughout the UK and also replace those woods that have been lost to landscape and create new native woodland. The Woodland Trust uses its experience and authority in conservation to influence others who are in a position to improve the future of native woodland. This includes government, other landowners, and like-minded organisations.
Since they were founded in 1972 they have grown to care for and protect over 1100 sites covering 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres). This includes nationally and internationally important sites as well as small urban and village woods. Nearly 350 sites contain ancient woodland. The organisation also protects over 110 woodland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). 3200 hectares of new native woodland have been created and the organization is in the process of creating one of the largest broadleaved woods in Scotland at the 4087-hectare Glen Finglas Estate in the Trossachs. Woodland Trust own 20 sites covering 430 hectares (1060 acres) in the National Forest in the Midlands and have sites in all 12 Community Forests across England.
The Woodland Trust is the first major landowner in the UK to have all its woods certified under the Forest Stewardship Council’s UK Standard of Sustainable Forestry – an independent endorsement of the quality of our woodland management. Several Woodland Trust woods have received awards for good management. This includes Joyden’s Wood in Kent and Willesley Wood within the National Forest in Leicestershire which have both won Forestry Commission Centre of Excellence Awards, and Coed Hafod y Llyn in Gywnedd which has won a Forestry Commission Merit Award.
The Woodland Trust’s vision is for an accessible and well-wooded landscape, rich in wildlife and supporting the needs of society in both urban and rural areas. Woodland should be cared for as a legacy for future generations.
Woodland Trust on the web: Woodland Trust
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