They’re living monuments that link us to the lives of our ancestors and connect us with important events that have shaped our society.
They’re twisted and gnarled – they’re centuries-old beacons of biodiversity, bristling with countless species, from microscopic organisms to bats and birds, that depend on them for food and shelter.
And they’re iconic landscape features that add character and fascination to the countryside.
Whichever way you think of them, ancient trees have huge historic, cultural and ecological value. They also look beautiful, they’re tactile and alluring, and they enjoy the deep affection of millions of people.
But they’ve also disappeared at an alarming rate in recent times and many of the ones that remain face the threat of being lost through disease and lack of proper protection.
Their importance was celebrated – and their plights were highlighted – at a two-day international conference held in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire last week. The Ancient Tree Forum, supported by the Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group, staged the event which was attended by more than 100 experts and enthusiasts from across the UK, as well as from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium.
In addition to their knowledge and obviously deeply held reverence and sense of wonder at the characteristics of ancient trees, conference delegates also expressed concerns over their conservation.
Two of the most pressing issues raised by expert speakers involved the need for a national tree register that would raise awareness of the ancient icons’ diverse values, and the need to combat diseases that pose severe threats to the future of trees that have such rich and varied pasts.
In an opening conference session at the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall, forum member and Woodland Trust conservation officer Jill Butler outlined the current broad-based campaign for the establishment of a register of what she referred to as “VITs” – Very Important Trees. The register would add significantly to the current Tree Preservation Order system of protection, she said.
“We do have the TPO system but the register would not be a process of control, it would be a process of celebration where we are reaching out to owners to advise them and help them, and persuade and inspire them, to do the right things for the care of such trees,” she said.
Historic England had recently named 500 new “listed objects” that were deemed to be significant, including “lamp-posts and concrete walls”, she said. “What would we give for a list of important trees. Other countries understand what it is all about – why can’t we get our Government to help owners of ancient trees?” she asked.
Some progress was being made in the register campaign. A Welsh Assembly task group had been formed and talks had been held in Northern Ireland and Scotland, she said. In England, a Government minister involved in talks had lost his seat in May’s General Election and so, she said, “we have to go back” on order to move the process forward again.
After standing for hundreds of year, many oak trees were facing a “crisis”, delegates were told by Neville Fay. The principal consultant for the Treework Environmental Practice, Mr Fay outlined some of the research being undertaken into the causes of acute oak decline.
The disease was “quite a significant issue” and its spread had been rapid in parts of England – including East Anglia – and Wales. In 2006 it had been identified at eight sites and by 2010 the number of sites affected had risen to 100, including 42 recorded in 2010 alone. A diseased tree could die within three to five years of infection, with symptoms including loss of foliage density and sections of bark “bleeding” and breaking away.
Studies were under way to establish the causes of the disease, with a beetle now widely ruled out as a culprit and the focus being placed on soil characteristics. Various treatments were being tested at research sites, including the application of composts, local broadleaf woodchip and rock dust, he said.
Mr Fay emphasised the importance of finding a solution to the problem when he repeated a colleague’s comment. “Our beloved oak is the thing that has put the ‘great’ into Great Britain,” he said. Oaks had historical, cultural, ecological and landscape importance – “and this is what we are losing,” he said.
After the opening session, conference delegates visited the Aspal Close local nature reserve at Beck Row. A relic landscape that is derived from ancient wood pasture, the site is managed by Forest Heath District Council and is home to about 200 veteran oak trees, many of which could be up to 1,000 years old.
Delegates also visited Lynford Hall Hotel at Mundford – a former Forestry Commission training school which boasts an impressive Wellingtonia avenue. From the hotel they toured the nearby Stanford Battle Area to study some of the Brecks’ distinctive pine lines.
On the conference’s second day, delegates gathered at the hotel for further presentations and also toured the renowned Willock Farm, Wisbech St Mary, Cambridgeshire. The farm is home to a 22-acre ancient orchard and is the site of the East of England Regional Collection, which consists of 250 varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries.
Forum chairman Brian Muelaner told the EADT: “The real value of the Ancient Tree Forum’s events is that they attract people from diverse backgrounds, and provide the opportunity for them to share knowledge, experience and ideas.
“The idea of our summer forum is to bring people together who share a passion for protecting our ancient trees – whether they’re professional arboriculturalists, amateur conservationists or simply people who appreciate the beauty of our oldest trees.”
The Ancient Tree Forum raises awareness of the value of ancient and other veteran trees, and lobbies for their care and protection. It also provides advice on ancient tree management and opportunities for people to learn more about them. Further information is available at ancienttreeforum.co.uk