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Veteran Trees: what are they and why do they matter? 

Ancient or veteran?

When we talk about ancient and veteran trees, what do we mean? The Ancient Tree Forum explains the difference. Ancient trees are in their old age, older than others of the same species. That means that their crown and trunks are no longer increasing and in fact they may be growing down or ‘retrenching’. You can see this very clearly in long lived trees like ancient oaks or sweet chestnuts. They can be gnarled, knobbly, huge, bent and hollow but are still very much alive and support a complete ecosystem of insects, bird and lichens.

Veteran trees can be much younger. The tree may have developed some of the features found on an ancient tree, but not necessarily as a consequence of time. They bear ‘scars’ of decay in the trunk, branches or roots, fungal fruiting bodies, or dead wood. These veteran features still provide a vital wildlife habitat. Ancient veterans are ancient trees, but not all veterans are old enough to be ancient.

Amazingly, the UK has about 80% of Europe’s ancient trees and not only that, our closest park, Blenheim, has the biggest and most important collection of ancient oak trees in Europe, with nearly 1000 ancient and veteran trees. Management of our parks has allowed more of these fantastic trees to survive than in the rest of Europe, but you will also find ancient trees in hedgerows, some of which will have been boundary markers.

Boundary trees are often pollarded—cut regularly above animal browsing height providing a supply of fuel or small wood for fences etc. This practice dates back to at least the medieval period. A pollarded tree can live to a great age—you can see some great pollarded willows in the meadow at Park Cottage Eynsham, for example.

Diagram showing the stages in the life of an ancient tree: the ancient phase may be the longest and the most valuable for associated wildlife. 

 

Why are ancient trees so important? 

Ancient trees support an ecosystem of insects, birds, lichens etc. It may take several hundred years for this special habitat to be created and become suitable for many rare and specialised fungi and animals. The decaying wood of an ancient tree is one of the most important habitats that exists in Europe, so it is vital to conserve all our ancient trees. For instance the invertebrate fauna within High Park, Blenheim, includes three Red Data Book (endangered) beetles. Our ancient trees are complex living records of our history and the UK has a special responsibility to protect them.

How do you date a tree?

The very basic rule of thumb for estimating the age of trees is to measure round the trunk (girth) at 1.5m above the ground, and then for an average tree in average conditions it should add inch (25.4mm) of girth for every year of growth. In practice it is much more complicated and ancient trees are more complex still. A methodology for estimating the age of veteran trees has been developed by the Forestry Commission, and you can find resources for dating specific species on the Woodland Trust's website. 

A veteran oak at Blenheim, which appears to have been pollarded. 
 

How old is an ancient tree?

The exact age at which you’d call a tree ancient depends on the species of tree and other factors including the site and soil, and whether it is crowded or not. A birch tree could be considered as ancient if it lived 150 years, but an oak needs to be at least 400 years old.

Ancient trees in the Wychwood area 

Many of the oaks at Blenheim are much older. The largest oak in High Park (east and south of Combe lodge) – The King Oak – was measured in 2009 by veteran tree expert Ted Green. Its circumference of 9.2m shows it is roughly 920 years old, and there are other trees there of a similar size. It is quite likely that the largest trees have been in existence since High Park became established as a royal deer park in the early 12th century. Over 60 trees at Blenheim date from the Middle Ages – a remarkable achievement of continuity. 

Some fantastic ancient pollarded ash trees line the path to the Bridewell or Lady Well at Wilcote, near Finstock, which has ancient pre-Christian and pre-Roman origins. Many of the trees are hollow—an entirely normal part of the trees' aging process, rather than a sign of ill health.

Ancient ashes at Wilcote. 
 

Yew trees can live for thousands of years, so are not defined as ancient until they are 800 years old. The Fortingall yew, Taxus baccata, in Perthshire, Scotland, is perhaps the oldest tree in the UK. Modern experts think it is 2,000–3,000 years old, although some believe it could be far older—maybe even 5,000 years old. In 1769 the girth was recorded as a massive 17 metres. An ancient yew in Iffley has a girth of about 8.2m. 

By contrast a False Acacia (Black locust) of 200 years is already an ancient tree. These trees are brittle and tend to drop limbs in an alarming manner. They were much admired by the writer William Cobbett, and the story goes that he planted one of the seeds he collected in North America in the early 19th century at the Gables in Eynsham. Cobbett went on to raise and sell ‘Locusts’ in their thousands. The tree at the Gables is close to Newland Street; it has been reduced in height but is still festooned with mistletoe and supports ivy, elder and squirrel nests.

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Many thanks to Sarah Couch from the Eynsham Nature Recovery Network for her permission to reproduce this fascinating article along with her photos. Look out for the second part, coming soon. 

What makes the Wychwood special to you? 

Do you have a favourite place, soundscape, view, or path in the Wychwood area? We would love to know what it is, and what makes it special to you. In collaboration with our Artists in Residence, Nimmi Naidoo and Flora Gregory, we are launching an artistic project to understand what makes the Wychwood special to the people who live there. We would like to invite anyone living in the Wychwood area to share photosvideospoems or artworks reflecting the places they love in the Wychwood Forest, to support an innovative virtual artwork that explores how we see the environment around us.

 

Flora and Nimmi, known as the Mappists, create participatory art events that offer people different ways of connecting with nature. Recent events include 'Come into the Woods: Topples Wood' an opportunity for forest bathing and to connect to the woods through audio works, and 'The Map Room: Make your Mark!' where people mark the route of their Wychwood Forest walks on a map and talk about what they love about being in the forest. Flora and Nimmi both gained an MA in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University. Social Sculpture is an art form that employs social processes, and puts forward the idea that we are all artists in that every aspect of life can be seen as creative.

 

In this project, the artists will gather together contributions that celebrate what locals find special about the Wychwood around us. They hope to create a new map, and possibly a map app, of the Wychwood area that collects and displays personal responses to places. As contributions come in, they will also share them on their website—and we will share contributions on our Instagram channel—to help us all discover new and meaningful places in the space around us. 

 

So if a favourite place, tree, or anything else springs to mind, please do get in touch. We welcome contributions of photos, poems, recordings, drawings, or anything else representing your favourite places in the Wychwood, along with a couple of lines explaining what makes it special to you. We hope you enjoy the project, and that it helps us all find fresh perspectives on the natural world around us, for lockdown and beyond.  

 

 

Update from our hedgelayers: once more unto the Breach

In order to protect nesting birds, the hedgelaying season runs from October to March. In 2020 our hedgelaying group finished their work at Foxburrow and moved on to Breach Wood, Hailey where they are laying a significant hedge that runs from the Community Wood down to Whitings Lane along a popular walking route. In contrast to the hedges at Foxburrow, which were recently planted with thin stems less than 50mm in diameter, the Breach Wood hedge is much more mature, with bigger stems (150–200mm in diameter). An additional complication that it has been laid once before around 12 years ago, meaning that the hedge-layers have to clear out old material and lay more challenging regrown stems.

Photo: David Musson
 

To address this challenge, the hedgelayers have adopted a new tool: the chainsaw. Two of the group are formally qualified in the safe operation of chainsaws, which are potentially very dangerous in unskilled hands.

By the end of the 2020 season, a good section of the Breach Wood hedge had been completed—but sadly the looming Covid crisis cut the season short. Luckily, the hedgelaying team had reached a nice tidy finishing point. In winter 2020, between lockdowns, they managed to make a good start to continuing the work, though some of the team were unable to help out due to illness. They were happy to see significant regrowth from the previous season's work, and to receive positive comments from passing walkers. The team continues to build their skills and experience with a focus delivering a tidy hedge that conforms to the Midland style of hedgelaying.

There are many regional styles of hedgelaying around the country, developed over the years to meet each region's specific farming needs and landscape. Midland is the style of hedge that would have been seen in Oxfordshire. It is characterised by its asymmetric style, with a smooth “face” which is on the road side of the hedge and brush facing out into the field. Midland style hedges are typically topped with an attractive twisted top made of binders, which the group has harvested from Breach Wood's Hazel Coppice along with stakes to support the hedge as it grows. Coppicing is another traditional rural craft, which takes a natural rotation of Hazel and allows it to regrow.

Alas after a couple of sessions, our hedgelayers were back to lockdown, and following brief restart found themselves unable to progress again in 2021. They are hoping to be able to get back onto the hedge before the end of the season and get the current section completed. Until then, they are stuck sharpening their tools.

Hedgelaying is physically demanding and provides a great outdoor gym for a full body workout. The team would welcome new members who would like to learn a new skill, so get in touch with toby@wychwoodproject.org.uk if it sounds like a craft for you! No experience is necessary although manual dexterity is an advantage.

 

Photo: Stuart Bridger

 

Wychwood Project plants trees with local schools for National Tree Week

 

To celebrate this year's National Tree Week (28th November to 6th December), we decided to partner with local schools to deliver educational tree-planting events. With teams of enthusiastic Primary School children from Charlbury CE Primary, Woodstock CE Primary, and St Mary's CE Primary in Chipping Norton, we planted young whips and two-year-old heritage fruit trees on the school grounds, while delivering fun sessions teaching them about biodiversity, nature, and the roles trees play in ecosystems. We also gave tree-planting advice to Wychwood Primary and Tower Hill Primary, to help them establish what, where, and how best to plant trees on their school grounds. 

Thanks to The Conservation Volunteers' I Dig Trees (sponsored by OVO Energy), we were able to source many of the trees we planted for free. We were determined to avoid using plastic tree guards, so Toby masterminded some creative alternative tree-guards made from metal wire and wood.

Inevitably, a couple of our planned planting events had to be delayed as schools grappled with changing advice and local lockdowns. We're looking forward to visiting Great Rollright Primary School, Kingham Primary School, and Hailey Primary School after Christmas. 

Though tree-planting can play a good role in habitat restoration, we believe firmly in the refrain “right tree in the right place for the right reason”. In line with this philosophy, we ran detailed site visits before the sessions, and took care to only plant appropriate quantities and species of trees in the schools.