Custodians of living history

The Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Specialist, Jill Butler, writes about her favourite National Trust trees and the threats facing the UK’s historic trees.

“As a tree archaeologist, I don’t find it very surprising that the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the major custodians of ancient and other veteran trees.

The ancient Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede in Surrey. Credit John Miller

The ancient Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede in Surrey. Credit John Miller

“One of the most special on my list would be the Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede in Surrey. It is thought to be the location where King John, almost 800 years to the day, sealed the Magna Carta. Yews, which can live such long lives, were often used to distinguish burial or religious sites or venues for special occasions.

“The National Trust’s Ankerwycke Yew, Shugborough Yew and Newton’s Apple Tree were, quite rightly, shortlisted in this year’s Tree of the Year competition for England run by the Woodland Trust. The Woodland Trust believes that these, along with other National Trust trees like the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Sycamore, should be on a Register of Trees of National Special Interest. This would be a means of giving top recognition to the part they play in our history and landscape, as we do for many other national assets.

Coppice and thicket scrub in the north east section of Hatfield Forest, Essex.

Coppice and thicket scrub in the north east section of Hatfield Forest, Essex. Credit National Trust images, David Levenson

“Individual trees can be considered exceptional because they are extremely fat, tall, or very old. However, collections of trees, such as at Hatfield Forest in Essex, tell us about historic landscapes. It is a big landscape with hundreds of ancient and veteran trees hosting suites of different wildlife only found on trees once they have aged sufficiently. It is rich in pollards or ‘working trees’ and hosts some of the largest hornbeam pollards in Europe.

“Hatfield Forest is a model for resilient ancient treescapes as it is still very productive – producing top quality, grass-fed beef and wood products while continuing to care for the ancient trees. There is a real urgency to keep the ‘old-uns’ alive as long as possible until younger trees can age and create the habitat that only older trees can provide. Each tree in itself is also an historical and biological ‘document’ with much to tell us if only we can decipher the code.

“Many of my favourite ancient treescapes are now parklands, with their tree feet firmly in the mediaeval landscape e.g. Calke Abbey, Chirk Castle, Dinefwr, Crom, Clumber or Studley Royal. These emerged over time out of the vast forests as royalty privatised large chunks in making alliances or to raise money. As this happened the best deer ‘launds’ or lawns, with specific permission of the King, were carved out by the gentry to form deer parks. They all have hundreds of special trees many of which like the Old Man of Calke are celebrities in their own right and are truly magnificent, fat, hollow trees and the oldest of their species known in the world.

“Around the late middle ages, owners realised that instead of riding out to these areas to hunt, they could build their mansions and live within them. With the rise of Humphry Repton and Capability Brown the concept of the English Landscape swept Europe as a must have. It is remarkable to touch some of the big old trees at places like Croome in Worcestershire and think that 300 years ago it was planted at the instruction of the great man himself.

“I also love the many ancient trees that are historic pollard trees in hedges or within grazed areas such as commons or wood pastures where they provided shelter or shade for the stock and helped ‘naturally’ fertilise the soil.

“Sadly, owing to terrible tree diseases such as ash dieback, these historic trees are probably going to die in the next few years and just as we become aware of it, there is a great risk their story will be lost. Who knows what we may have learnt about from the great elm landscape had we been more aware of the part ‘working’ trees played in it. Many ancient trees may offer the diversity of genes that we will need to deal with threats of the future.

“For the past three years, the National Trust has been surveying their ancient, veteran and heritage trees and added over 35,000 records to the Ancient Tree Inventory. This means that future generations will be able to visit and enjoy the many ancient trees for as long as they last, or visit mediaeval treescapes unparalleled in the rest of Europe. The special trees in National Trust ownership are in good care, however we are calling for a statutory register of trees of national special interest to ensure others in the wider landscape are celebrated and protected, too – please help by being a voice for the voiceless.”



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