Valuing Lancashire's ancient trees as veteran landscape stars

It is time to recognise the veteran stars of our county’s landscape and treat them with the care they deserve. Fiona Finch reports on a day devoted to recognising these jewels in the county’s natural crow

Wednesday, 4th March 2020, 5:53 pm
Course tutor Luke Steer pictured on the site visit in Bowland

Our red rose county has much to recommend it.

From local produce to local ale, industry to agriculture there is plenty to take pride in.

But what about the hidden treasures in our environment...namely our ancient and veteran trees?

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Ancient trees in Bowland (Photo: Bowland AONB)

These “senior citizens” of the landscape have been a tad overlooked. But not for much longer.

There are moves afoot to begin recording those outstanding trees, not only to ensure they are conserved and valued for future generations, but also to ensure their ongoing valuable contribution to the ecosystem is recognised.

All of which explains how your reporter found herself enrolled on a study course devoted to said trees.

A passer-by might have thought we were tree hugging. Except there were not any passers-by and we were definitely not hugging trees, rather, well, evaluating them.

Robin Gray, development and funding officer for the Bowland AONB

It was becoming clear that signing up for a day-long Ancient Tree Forum ‘Introduction to Veteran and Ancient Trees’ day at the Bowland AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) HQ meant more than a day in the classroom.

We were in the depths of the Lancashire countryside and tape measures at the ready were intent on measuring the girth of some chosen trees and assessing their condition.

Part of the aim of the day was to explore interest in recording Lancashire’s outstandingly ancient trees, and there is, it turns out, nothing like a site visit for getting up close to the objects of our attention.

The first lesson was to know what to look for and we quickly learned it is not just huge trees which have the distinction of being ancient and veteran. A short distance from the Bowland AONB offices at Dunsop Bridge we drove to a local farm and were soon being guided along a hedgerow.

There is much to assess on this aged tree

Although our targets for the exercise were larger trees in a remote hedgerow, we were encouraged to look up the hillside on the other side of a fence where livestock would not go.

There, some very handsome but small, gnarled hawthorn and holly trees, holding on to the side of the hill, could, we were assured, be very ancient indeed - the remnants of older woodland.

Continuing, we were asked to choose trees to survey. Following the morning talk given by tree expert Luke Steer from Ambleside, we were issued with detailed survey sheets which had us checking trunk girth at 1.3 m above ground level, the tree’s form - maiden , pollard in cycle, a “lapsed pollard”, coppice of stump, whether it was standing or fallen, leaning or with a lifting root plate.

Then the investigations turned to the quality of the trunk - were there any holes, was it hollow, was there deadwood on the crown or fallen around it, were there tears, scars, lightning strikes, sap runs or water pockets?

Checking out the trees on training day

What about decay or rot and what about “visitors”?

We were encouraged to check for fungi ranging from toadstool fungi and bracket fungi to lichens, mosses, ferns, mistltoe and ivy.

A woodpecker hole was spotted on one tree as we searched for evidence of insect boring and exit holes, bird nesting or bat roosts. Well, truthfully we might not have got as far as that given the time of year and time allocated for the survey. But, as with life generally, the more we looked the more we saw.

After asking participants to assess the landscape issues and value of the tree, the Habitat Assessment form concluded with two key questions - what factors,if any, pose a current threat to the tree and how would you class these threats?

The event was organised as a follow on to a Festival Bowland Ancient Tree Forum - Our Landmark Trees talk last October at Downham Village Hall, near Clitheroe.

There was such an enthusiastic turn out that it was clear there was an appetite for further information.

Luke said: “We had a lot of big old trees in the landscape until a couple of hundred years ago. We are the generation that has realised how important the ancient trees are. We don’t have the template from previous generations - we’re inventing the wheel.”

He stressed the continuing importance of such trees as “living ecosystems” even in decay.

As for identifying them, different species age at different rates, so what is old for one tree may not apply to another. Signs of ageing include cavities, broken branches, a gnarled appearance, exposed surface roots and fungi.

A small canopy or wide trunk (e.g. 1.5 m for a hawthorn and 5m for a sweet chestnut) and a hollowed trunk can also be key indicators says the Woodland Trust.

Robin Gray, development and funding officer for the Bowland AONB, inset above, said that looking at present records there were some ancient Lancashire trees listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory , but not as many as might be expected.

Robin admits he has “no idea” how many ancient trees there are in Bowland, although some are listed on the inventory.

He said there are also longer term ambitions to look at Bowland’s past landcape and see how this can inform its future landscape.

This would be aided by an awareness of how tree habitats vary from woodland, to wood pasture and hay meadows.

There is also potential for an analysis of ‘ghost sites’ where residual elements of trees might indicate a previous site of ancient woodland and potential for future woodland. Meanwhile he urged anyone with knowledge of ancient or veteran trees in the county to share information with The Woodland Trust. He said it is likely a volunteer assesor would then go out to check out the tree.

Another training day has been arranged and Robin said: “We’ve got some really motivated people who want to get closely involved and we’re hoping to raise the profile of ancient and veteran trees.”

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* A veteran tree can be can be defined as ‘a tree that is of interest biologically, culturally or aesthetically because of its age, size or condition.”

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* The oldest tree in the UK is likely to be a yew tree in Scotland thought to be between 2000 and 3000 years old.

* Trees age at different rates. For example a birch could be ancient at 150 and a yew at 800 years of age.

* Ancient trees are in the third and final stage of their life and can be gnarled, bent, ridged or hollow.