Veteran trees are trees which, due to their size, age or condition, are of special interest biologically, culturally or aesthetically. Britain has a remarkable heritage of veteran or ancient trees, many of which enjoy special protection.
A veteran or ancient tree often reflects past management practices and so represents a historical record of the landscape where it has grown. For example, it may display evidence of past coppice or pollard management or indicate if it was part of an ancient deer park or forest.
Trees are the oldest known living organisms on the planet, with life spans usually measured in centuries. Veteran trees are therefore very long lived examples of their species – often many hundreds of years old. In Britain, our oldest living native tree species is the Common yew (Taxus baccata) which, it is thought, can live many thousands of years.
One of our oldest examples of yew in Britain can be found in the church yard of Much Marcle in Herefordshire. The tree is thought to be over 1500 years old, it has a girth of 9.52m and its hollow trunk has been fitted with seating for weary travelers.
Trees have no set life span but as a tree ages its growth rate decreases every year. The veteran stage can be the longest period in the life of some trees and it is common for them to exhibit a wide range of decay such as rotten heart wood, rot holes or dead branches. Decaying wood can provide specialist niches for fungi, lichens, hole-nesting birds and insects. These creatures and plants are often rare and declining because their habitat needs are so specific and veteran trees play a very important role in their survival.
Sensitive management of veteran trees helps to ensure they thrive for as long as they can, remain structurally stable and do not suffer damage from surrounding activity. Tree preservation orders (TPOs) are a good method of protecting special trees as they prevent the tree from being cut down, uprooted or damaged without the written consent of the Local Planning Authority. TPOs provide legal protection for trees and woodlands under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.