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Forest Icons Ancient trees need our protection, says Amber Tokeley

Almost half a millennia ago, Elizabeth I lost some jewellery while sheltering beneath the old oak at Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. The jewellery – and the monarch – has long gone but the oak lives on, gnarled, hollow and full of character. Ancient trees have a charismatic presence all of

their own. Their longevity inspires awe: these living ‘statues’ have borne silent witness to centuries of history – of battles fought, secrets told, and lovers meeting. Often, they invoke a profound sense of peace, of being in sacred space. Certainly, trees have played a central role in many

of the world’s mythologies and religions. Powerful symbols of growth, decay and resurrection, they have also inspired generations of writers and artists. They even play a vital role in the health of our

planet, with ancient trees supporting wildlife that cannot grow anywhere else. As Sir David Attenborough explains, ‘There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism’. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Woodland

Trust has recently launched a campaign calling for a national register of Trees of Special Interest. It follows on from the success of its Ancient Tree Hunt project which has now verified and recorded some 110,000 ancient, veteran and notable trees in Britain. An official register would not only raise awareness of their importance explains the Trust’s Head of Campaigning,

Measuring Hughenden Manor’s new champion tree, a 300-year-old Horse Chestnut: it stands 14m tall with a girth of 3.22m.

Nikki Williams, but also help get ‘as many of these trees as possible the right care and protection they need to survive for many years to come’. Tree registers already exist elsewhere in Europe

where gnarled ‘veterans’ are given national importance. Ironically, 70% of Europe’s ancient trees

are confined to Britain, a horrifying three-quarters of which may now be at risk from pests and diseases such as ash die-back as well as from neglect, felling and even the planned HS2 high speed rail link. As nature’s equivalent of listed buildings, their loss would be devastating not just for their historic value and for the landscape but also for the environment. Here in the Chilterns, woodland remains a

significant and much-loved feature of our landscape. It has survived because historically it had economic value, supporting local woodland industries such as chair-making and providing a ready-fuel supply for nearby London. The carefully tended beech and oak pollards of Burnham Beeches, some more than 400 years old, are a testament to such historic economic usefulness and remain one of Britain’s best examples of ancient woodlands. There are a number of ancient and notable trees

throughout the Chilterns, including the record- breaking-huge horse chestnut at Hughenden Manor Park, near High Wycombe. The Chilterns Special Trees and Woods Project (see the Chilterns AOB website) has recorded many more ranging from the Hangman’s Oak near Lacey Green to an Ashridge beech where, in 1944, American GIs preparing for D Day carved the names of their home states alongside a ‘V’ for victory.

Signs of age A tree is considered ancient if it is unusually old for its species; for an oak that’s a jaw-dropping 600 years while a birch is approaching ‘pensionable age’ at a mere 200. Tell-tale signs include a large girth for its species and important wildlife and habitat features including hollowing, fungi associated with decay, holes, wounds and dead branches in the canopy. Interestingly, a hollow tree is often a healthy one:

the decaying wood inside serves as extra nutrition and the tree sends aerial roots into the hollow to feed off itself, prolonging its own life. Trees also have other survival strategies; they shrink as they age, becoming shorter and more compact to minimise wind damage. Yet these magnificent icons are much more

fragile than we may realise: walkers regularly tramping underneath can compress and destroy roots; thin-barked woodland trees such as beech can die of sunburn if suddenly exposed when neighbouring trees fall; and lighting even a small fire near a tree can actually boil the sap and kill it. Druids worshipping the great beech at Ashridge a few years ago had to be warned off for just this reason.

The ancient yew tree at the medieval church of St Nicholas, at Ibstone, has a girth of 5.6m and is one of the largest yews in the Chilterns. It may be over 1,000 years old.


More study needed Globally, trees are disappearing at a terrifying rate, not just because of climate change but from centuries of felling, mismanagement, neglect and ignorance. Scientists admit that trees remain poorly studied, yet many now believe that they play a vital, if little understood, role in maintaining the health of the planet.



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