I have returned to the Rougham Estate to visit an old friend. We first met towards the end of last year; it is not our friendship that is old, but my friend. Very old. Officially ancient, in fact. They are sat where they were seven months ago, hunched under the weight of age, in the corner of the field, next to a late-medieval barn that might not yet have been built when the tree had been a sapling.
My friend is an English Oak (Quercus robur), and is at least 300 years old, probably much older. Long ago, the oak must have been a lot taller; it has been pollarded in the past – by humans or storm, I don’t know – and what remains of its height has died back over time. It now squats low, its branches leaning down to the ground, as though to stabilise itself.
The centre of the trunk has rotted away, creating what looks like a perfect den; as a child, I know I would have climbed in immediately, and am disappointed that my adult frame (and my current company) stop me from doing so now. Nearby, fallen branches have been stacked to create a habitat for invertebrates.
Yet the oak is still very much alive. Each branch is heavy with bright green new leaves, still soft to the touch. By human standards, it is a miracle. Yet, according to the Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI) – a joint project by the Woodland Trust, the Tree Register and the Ancient Tree Forum – this is just one of the more than 3,000 ancient English Oaks recorded in the UK, and recent research suggests this is just a fraction of the total figure.
My brother-in-law and I visited in November last year to measure and photograph ancient trees across the 3,000 acres of Suffolk countryside that constitute the Rougham Estate, with George Agnew, owner of the estate, and Chairman of the Rougham Estate Trust. During the course of the damp autumnal morning, we clambered through mushroom- and acorn-strewn undergrowth to record 25 additional ancient and veteran oak pollards for the ATI.
The seasons have turned, the mushrooms and acorns have been replaced by waist-high nettles and wildflowers, and George and I returned again to visit these trees, this time in the company of David Alderman, Head Verifier for the ATI and Honorary Director of the Tree Register. David is here to verify the trees we recorded last year.
David’s knowledge is awe-inspiring: while I was struggling to pinpoint where the limes lining each side of one avenue transformed into oaks, he was spotting specific clones among the limes, and explaining irregularities in the historic planting. While driving through the estate, his face was pressed against the window of the car like a kid outside a sweetshop, identifying distant species of trees – most of which I’d never heard of. Combined with George’s familiarity with the history of the estate and hands-on experience with its maintenance, they made an impressive team.
The recording of ancient trees is important – urgent – work. Trees are a vital part of our national heritage, and the oldest are usually found in areas of special historical interest, such as countryside estates and parkland, fragments of ancient woodland, or in churchyards.
Our ancient trees therefore help us to connect with our country’s history in a way no inanimate building or artefact could. Looking at an ancient tree is the closest any of us are ever likely to come to time travel: meeting individuals who were actually alive in Victorian, Tudor or – in some rare cases – even Roman Britain and beyond.
Ancient trees also play an important role for other wildlife, including insects, fungi, birds and mammals. Some species are entirely dependant on certain trees for their survival, and older trees offer many more opportunities for biodiversity than younger ones. As trees age, they soften, form crevices and holes – sometimes hollowing-out entirely – and rot. All of this creates rich habitats for wildlife, while having little impact on the health of the tree: in some cases, these processes, especially the breakdown and transportation of nutrients by fungi, actually benefit the tree.
Despite all this, however, there is no consistent protection for ancient trees in the UK, and according to the Woodland Trust, 50% of Eastern England’s largest trees have been lost in the last 150 years, mostly due to drastic overreactions in the pursuit of tidiness on the part of landowners and local councils, and the unregulated destruction by housing developers.
The sad lesson from the disgraceful decision of Plymouth City Council to fell more than 100 mature trees, despite local consultation, expert opinion urging them not to, and an ongoing investigation into the poor handling of a similar situation in Sheffield between 2013 and 2018, highlights that much more needs to be done to protect our country’s trees.
Ancient trees are vitally important in so many ways, but from a personal perspective, I have to admit that I just love being around them: looking at their shapes, the ingenious ways they continue to adapt themselves to their surroundings, their quiet stillness, their unique personalities. While the human environment – people, buildings and things – imposes itself on the viewer through bold gestures and distraction, trees seem to do the opposite: they invite us, silently, to focus our attention on smaller details or larger patterns.
So, if the next time you see me, I am standing outside, on my own, measuring tape and clipboard in-hand, staring up into the canopy of a gnarled oak with a look of awe on my face, please realise I am not alone: I’m spending time with my oldest friends.
The Woodland Trust has an ongoing petition, urging the UK government to do more to protect ancient, veteran and important trees, which I encourage everyone reading this to sign.
You can browse the Ancient Tree Inventory to find information about the closest recorded ancient trees, as well as resources to help you make your own recordings. The websites of the Woodland Trust, the Ancient Tree Forum and the Tree Register are also full of useful information.
Information about the fight to protect Plymouth’s Amanda Way trees can be found on the website for Save the TRees of Amanda Way (STRAW), and a recent crowd funding campaign to raise money for a judicial review into the actions of Plymouth City Council has raised almost £25,000. The independent review on the handling of Sheffield’s street trees, which was published in March this year, can be found on the Sheffield City Council website.