Most ancient trees are defined as those believed to be over 400 years old, although it can be less, for species with a shorter life span. 400 years is also used to define ancient woodlands, a timescale initially defined by how far back our map records tend to go.
Oliver Rackham wrote: ‘Ten thousand oaks of one hundred years are no substitute for one five hundred year old oak tree’. I would not go that far myself, but they do have a special importance, and are particularly valuable for other species, as well as often having a great historical or cultural importance in the local landscape. Older trees are often hollow and have a lot of dead wood on them. They will often be rich in lichens, and can have ferns and other plants growing on them. The dead wood is habitat for many insects and fungi, and hollow trees are often good roosting sites for bats.
I recently attended a short course about recording ancient trees, run by the Tamar Valley AONB. In the afternoon we went out to Cotehele, the local National Trust Estate, where we were let loose on recording a few of their trees (see photo).
A really famous ancient tree is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, reputed to be 800 years old, and used by Robin Hood to hide from the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Major Oak recently came sixth in the European Tree of the Year competition. The winner was an Estonian oak tree in the middle of a football pitch; if that sounds strange Kent County Cricket Club had a mature lime within its main ground until it succumbed to storms in 2005.
Closer to home probably one of the oldest trees we have on our land is this oak in Chelfham Woods, soon to be under the custodianship of Rosanna. Alfoxton Wood, in the Quantocks is an old area of wood pasture and also has a series of old trees, but nothing quite 400 years old.
I sometimes see interesting trees on survey work. The photograph here is of an old ash coppice. The shoots may have come from a long since fallen mature tree, as 27 stems now form an almost perfect circle. Oliver Rackham once thought that ancient ash coppice could provide some of the oldest trees in the country, up to 2,000 years old.
The Woodland Trust have an interactive map web-site showing recorded ancient trees, so you can have a look to see what has been recorded around you. Kenner readers may also consider training to be a recorder themselves. On our course Tim estimated half of the ancient trees in Cornwall remain unrecorded, and that is for a well covered county. But in the meantime if you have an old hollow tree that seems to be on its last legs, treasure and look after it; if only you could listen to its stories…………………