Veteran trees; their importance and management
Ancient and veteran trees
The terms ‘ancient’ and ‘veteran’ tree instantly conjure up an image in the mind’s eye: Wonderful gnarly trees which have stood the test of time providing stability in an otherwise ever-changing landscape. They are full of character, decaying wood and play host to a wide range of wildlife.
But what is the difference between the two and how do we recognise them?
In the past the terms ancient and veteran have been used interchangeably, causing some confusion. For clarity below is a definition of each:
Ancient – A tree that has passed beyond maturity and is old, or aged, in comparison with other trees of the same species. Typical characteristics of an ancient tree are: a retrenching crown or a crown that has ‘grown downwards’, a trunk with a large girth and a trunk which is hollow or hollowing.
Veteran – A tree that is of interest biologically, culturally or aesthetically because of its age, size or condition. In relation to wildlife habitat, a Veteran tree is a survivor that has developed some of the features found on an Ancient tree, not necessarily as a consequence of time, but of its life or environment.
By virtue of their age and condition, all ancient trees are veterans, but not all veterans are old enough to be ancient.
The value of ancient and veteran trees
Ancient and veteran trees provide an immense range of values and should be cherished for the irreplaceable benefits they offer to our landscape.
They link us to our past; most are several hundred years old but a few may be a thousand or more years old. These trees may have borne witness to historic events such as the sealing of the Magna Carta or provided inspiration to writers including Shakespeare and Wordsworth, whilst others have been visited by historical figures like Henry VIII or the legendary Robin Hood.
They tell us about past land usage, which has changed dramatically in the last few hundred years, but where these trees persist they provide hints of historic landscapes. Worked trees, such as pollards, show the importance of these trees to local people in times gone by, indeed they were often vital for their very survival.
They host a diverse array of wildlife. Decaying wood habitat, once commonplace, is becoming more threatened. This decaying wood is the basis for an entire ecosystem including huge numbers of fungi, invertebrates, lichen, liverworts, mosses, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to name a few.
Management of veteran trees
In this section, for simplicity, the term veteran will be used to describe both ancient and veteran trees. The overall aim of all veteran tree management should seek to achieve ‘no avoidable loss of veteran trees’. To achieve this, we need to ensure that trees are kept alive for as long as possible and that the wide range of values they offer are maintained or, if possible, enhanced.
The management of veteran trees is a complex and dynamic topic. When managing any veteran tree it is important to treat the tree as an individual and manage according to its specific needs. Assess any actual or potential threats to the tree, and then tailor management to suit the requirements of the individual; just because one veteran tree has been managed in one way doesn’t mean that they should all be managed in the same manner.
Three questions can help guide the veteran tree management process; starting at number one and only moving onto the next question when the first doesn’t resolve the issue.
1. Does anything need to be done?
It may not be necessary to do anything. When undertaking any management there should be a clear need for intervention. Without this, it is not possible to assess the effectiveness of management and poorly thought out management may be of detriment to the tree.
Veteran trees have already survived for a long period of time. Left to their own devices they may be able to grow for many more.
2. Does the land around the tree need managing?
Threats to veteran trees often arise from the land surrounding the tree. Common examples include excessive shade cast by young regeneration or damage caused to the root and soil environment by compaction or addition of chemicals such as artificial fertilizers or pesticides.
Does the land around the tree need managing? These veteran oak trees were killed by excessive shading (© Brian Muelaner)
Shade cast by young regeneration can be removed by felling the young trees. The source of damage to the soil can be removed by setting up a root protection area. For more information, see the VETtree videos on the Ancient Tree Forum website for more info on these topics (link below).
3. Does the veteran tree need managing?
This should be the last option, and only employed when the threats
are not addressed during steps 1 and 2. It is difficult to prescribe
generic management recommendations here, as each tree and situation is
different. You should seek help from a veteran tree specialist should
there be a need to manage a veteran tree to ensure management
recommendations are appropriate and don’t cause damage to the tree.
Further guidance and training
The above provides some initial thinking points regarding veteran tree management. Further information can be obtained from the Ancient Tree Forum website. Available resources include: comprehensive handbooks on veteran tree management and short videos tackling key management problems.
Visit www.ancienttreeforum.co.uk for more information.
The Ancient Tree Forum also runs courses on Valuing and Managing Veteran Trees. A one-day course is offered for anyone who is involved in veteran tree management or has an interest in veteran trees, from the veteran tree enthusiast to professional arboriculturists and foresters. Where individuals want to move on to teach others about veteran trees, a three-day course has been designed to provide individuals with the skills and resources to teach the one-day course themselves. See the Ancient Tree Forum website for the 2018 training programme.
About the Ancient Tree Forum
The Ancient Tree Forum champions the biological, cultural and historic value of Britain’s ancient and veteran trees, and provides advice on their value and management. To find out more, visit our website or sign up to our newsletter at www.ancienttreeforum.co.uk
Training and Technical Officer for the Ancient Tree Forum