The public have a fascination with ancient trees. The recent national poll on the nation’s favourite tree drew the interest of newspapers, with the winner going up against trees across Europe.
These trees often have a story to tell, some being associated with famous people or events, whilst for others the fascination is in their sheer size and battered appearance. They have great character carved out by the passage of time, often hollow, gnarled and scarred, reflecting all that has happened to them. People are drawn to them, whether to marvel at their size or play inside them.
But this attraction can raise concern, both for the public and the trees.
The very features that give these trees their character can sometimes make them dangerous – they are often the very things we look out for when assessing risk – splits, cavities, fungi, and dead branches. Sometimes these trees are felled to prevent damage or injury – it’s old and therefore must be dangerous!
The public can damage trees by climbing on them, playing in them, building camps and fires within them, and even constant footfall can damage the soil around them, killing off the roots.
These trees are irreplaceable, unless you have several hundred years to hang around. The habitat they provide is very specialised – certain species can only exist in the bark, cavities and dead wood of ancient trees. How can you recreate overnight the character of a tree that has survived lightning strikes and storms for several centuries?
If these trees were old buildings they may well be listed, recognising their importance to our landscape and heritage. Many are the product of practices no longer carried out, such as pollarding, reflecting their importance to our ancestors. They may be former landmarks for navigation or boundary markers for parish boundaries. Why should they be any less important than a building, just because they weren’t deliberately built? They may well have been there hundreds of years before the listed buildings they now stand next to.
Just as an old building requires care and attention to stop it collapsing, harming or being damaged by visitors, we need to do the same for our ancient trees. Often only relatively minor work is needed to maintain them in a safe condition. Sometimes alternatives to pruning, such as changing the route of a path or allowing thorny vegetation to grow up, can reduce the risk. Where the public are attracted to trees, controlling access can stop them from being damaged by visitors – a well-placed board in a hollow section can keep children out, or a good layer of mulch round the tree helps prevent soil compaction.
These trees need to be treated with care and respect. Much like us as we age, they can’t cope with major or sudden changes – a softly-softly approach is best. Felling a tree should be the last resort, with all efforts put into keeping it alive as long as possible to allow for replacements to develop. If there is no alternative, leave it laying as close to where it stood as possible. Even a dead tree may contribute to the landscape for another hundred years, decaying gracefully and also giving the species it supports longer to find the next generation of ancient trees to colonise.
If you need advice on managing ancient trees, our experience in both arboriculture and ecology means that agb Environmental is well placed to help you.
For more help with any of your arboriculture needs or concerns, contact Alex Brearley at agb Environmental on 01638 663226 or email firstname.lastname@example.org