Efforts to increase the level of protection available to ancient – or simply old – trees in the UK have been building for some time. In 2019, Janis Fry, an artist and yew expert living in Wales, launched a petition calling for new laws that would prevent the destruction of about 157 ancient yew trees at least 2,000 years old. Since then, the chorus of disapproval about current provision has grown steadily louder (if not exactly deafening: tree enthusiasts not generally being the noisiest protesters).
The launch of the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year competition this week – in which five venerable oaks dominate a shortlist of 12 – offers another chance to focus minds. The wider problem goes beyond the lack of protection for individual trees, and includes issues relating to the conservation of nature more broadly. While tree cover in the UK is increasing, woodland wildlife is not, and more diverse planting, including a larger proportion of native species, is needed if that is to change. The consensus among experts and charities such as the trust is that government proposals recently sent out for consultation did not go far enough. Pressure must be applied to ensure that existing protections are not only maintained but strengthened as the risks from unchecked global heating and fossil fuel production continue to increase.
How old a tree needs to be to qualify as “ancient” depends on the species. Along with yews, traditionally planted in churchyards, where many of the oldest and most famous survivors can be found, oaks make up most of the UK’s outstanding examples. Although an estimated 1,000 years old, Lincolnshire’s Bowthorpe Oak is less than half the age of the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which is thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
Old age is only one measure of a tree’s importance. But longevity is a characteristic that resonates with people – and can also entice them as visitors, making ancient trees attractive to tourist boards. The identity of the most ancient tree of all is disputed. The bristlecone pine, which grows in remote areas of the US west, was long thought to have the longest lifespan, of close to 5,000 years, but recently researchers have claimed that the Patagonian cypress could surpass it.
Recent studies of forest ecology have also looked at the role played by underground networks of roots and fungi. Scientists now stress the ecological importance of what they call “large old trees” – a broader category than ancient ones. One of the challenges in the UK is making tree conservation a live domestic issue, when forest campaigning was for a long time associated with the tropics. Increasingly, what used to be described as “Atlantic woodland” is instead being called temperate rainforest – a name change that seems likely to help.
With just 16% of ancient woodland in England currently designated as a site of special scientific interest, and a new study suggesting that there could be around 2m ancient or veteran trees, at least it is not hard to find room for improvement. Italy recently passed a law granting 20,000 trees legal protection as natural monuments. The UK should follow suit, by providing specific protections for the trees deemed most valuable due to their great age or other significance. Such recognition is long overdue, and would form part of the wider struggle to help the natural world recover.