Ancient & Veteran Trees

As far back as 1600 AD, Britain has been host to regions of vast manufactured wooded area, termed Ancient Woodlands. Britain has the archetypal climate of mild winters, abundant rainfall and rich fertile soil. Such woodlands have been traditionally managed via ancient management practices.

Ancient semi-natural woodlands represent the remnants of the 1% of original forests in Britain. They are woodlands that have developed through the coppicing and natural regeneration of locally native trees and shrubs. Such woodlands show evidence of historical land use and traditional management practises and are regarded as highly important for the conservation of nature.

Ancient and Veteran status

Ancient trees have one or more of  the following criteria:

  • Biological, aesthetic or cultural interest due to its old age
  • A growth rate that is ancient or post-mature
  • Chronological age that is old in relation to surrounding trees of the same species

To determine ancient tree status, the girth of the tree is needed. This is the measurement of the distance around the trunk of the tree at breast height, which can vary between species. The minimum girth measurement of an ancient tree is 6 metres.

Veteran trees have ancient features but are not old in age compared to fellow trees within their species. They must also have a girth of at least 3 metres. Veteran trees are distinct in their features on account of their wood decay, fungi and exposed dead wood. Such trees may demonstrate both hollowing and decay within their trunks, branches and roots, loose bark, shattered branch ends, and rot of types also found in ancient trees.

Girth

Trees do not have a set life span; however, as a tree ages, its growth rate decreases yearly. The veteran stage can be the longest period in many trees’ lives before their ancientness is achieved. There is not an exact age for which a tree is classified as ancient as this has many variants, dependent upon both the species of tree and the site in which it grows. For instance, for a Birch tree to be classified as ancient, it requires the tree to be approx 150 years of age; however, an Oak tree must be at least 400 years old.

Importance

Ancient trees are one of the largest and oldest living organisms on the Earth yet contribute only a small percentage of the tree population.  However, coupled with veteran trees, the two hold historical, cultural, traditional, ecological and scientific significance.

Veteran and ancient trees are widely considered aesthetically pleasing and are a prominent feature of the natural landscape having inspired folklore, legends and art. On account of their age, they depict former land use and management practises which can go back centuries, and exhibit historical evidence of Coppice and Pollard management, cultural heritage and land use patterns.

These trees and woodlands can be studied on a local and national scale to allow conservationists, researchers and the like to gain insight into historical records of the land and past climate change, offering a tool in the research of trees and their life cycle. Woodlands supply a valuable gene pool of trees that have survived for centuries, thus may hold disease resistance properties. Some surviving ancient trees are so old that they can predate Christianity and may also be traced back to medieval periods.

Ancient and veteran trees are of extreme significance, as these trees inhabit zones of richer species than fellow young woodland trees. There are high percentages of rare and vulnerable species within their habitat. This is a valuable ecological site as the decay process within a veteran tree due to fungi, and dead wood recycles minerals within the tree’s vicinity and delivers an essential habitat for the animals and colonised invertebrates, some of which are rare. Such rarity has evolved over the centuries as the more mature the tree becomes, the greater the probability the tree provides habitation of rare and specialised organisms. Therefore, effective management practises are essential.

Location

Britain has the highest number of ancient trees in Northern Europe. Its three most common veteran trees are listed as the Coppice, Pollard and Maiden tree, such trees are named in relation to their origin and past management practices. Many are located in parklands; land grazed by deer, woodlands, churchyards and urban environments. The Welsh-English border is one of the richest regions in its quantity of ancient trees within Britain.

In Britain, the oldest living native tree species is the Common Yew (Taxus baccata), which is alleged to live for thousands of years. One of the oldest examples of Yew in Britain is found in the churchyard of Much Marcle, Herefordshire. This tree is thought to be over 1,500 years old and has a girth of 9.52 metres, with its hollowed trunk fitted with seating for visitors.

Management

The sustainable and sensitive management of ancient and veteran trees is needed to ensure that the trees remain healthy and do not become damaged from activities nearby. This management may differ according to the site’s location as environmental conditions may alter their response. Therefore assessment of the site in question is necessary.

Legislation

The preservation of ancient and veteran trees may follow the practice of legislations such as the Tree Preservation Order (TPO), which provides legal protection for both trees and woodlands under the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act. TPOs aid in the protection of trees from activities that may be harmful. They prevent trees from being altered or damaged via human intervention, such as tree felling. Local Planning Authority consent is a prerequisite before a tree may be cut down, uprooted or damaged. This can be an effective sensitive management tool and is in the tree and woodland’s best interest. Very minimal active management is conducted unless it is deemed absolutely necessary.

Coppicing:

Many veteran trees may have been managed with the ancient practice of coppicing, a woodland management technique that is both sustainable and cost-effective. Coppicing involves cutting down the tree to its base then allowing it to reshoot multiple stems. Depending on the species of the tree, between 7-20 years, the stems can be cut, and the cycle continued.

It is advised that a different area of the site of the woodland is cut each year so that there is a cycle of coppice coups that provide attractive habitats to surrounding wildlife. This practice keeps the woodland both healthy and productive, and the wood produced can be used for desired fencing and firewood.

Pollarding

Pollard management is the exercise of traditional pruning practices. Pollarding involves the cutting of the treetops and branches, leaving only the bare trunk exposed. The tree does grow back into a new branch structure within its life cycle. This can prolong a veteran tree’s life as it keeps the tree within a compact form and creates stability and new growth, maintaining the tree’s height, which may have had interference from urban communities such as electrical power lines.

Much like coppicing, the branches cut from pollarding can be used as fodder for grazing animals, firewood and fencing.

The best time of the year for pollard management is predominantly January – March. However, every site is unique, so this may vary and can be done yearly. Once a tree has reached its desired height, the top of the tree and branches can be cut with the trunk left to support around 3-5 branches that are cut to a desirable length.

When the annual growth rings start to develop, the trunk strengthens and forms a thickened base where the shoot meets the trunk. Over the years, this area of the tree may become swollen and form a pollard heard; this is the foundation for new shoots.

For more information about ancient trees, visit the Ancient tree forum or the Ancient yew group, which provide practical guidance on the management and protection of ancient trees or members can search articles in our Quarterly Journal of Forestry.