Where to see ancient trees in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 15:26 05 June 2017 | UPDATED: 15:26 05 June 2017
Credit: Iconpix / Alamy Stock Photo
We're all getting on a bit, but The Woodland Trust's Jill Butler shares the enduring magic of ancient trees with Claire Pitcher
“Once you’re introduced to ancient trees you’re hooked, they are just so wonderful. They’re individuals in their own right, so recognisable. They give us such a wonderful sense of where we’ve come from.” Jill Butler, a specialist on ancient and veteran trees for The Woodland Trust, speaks of the leafy golden olders like they’re people. She must have got to know quite a few over the years as she has been with the Trust since 1995.
Before that she had been working closely with the Ancient Tree Forum: “But I’ve always been a conservationist, ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper. My childhood was spent on Chobham Common, a conservation site.”
Seeing golden oldies
Living in Hungerford, Jill has identified a few ancient trees not far from home, including a maple and beech. But to those of us who wouldn’t know an ancient tree if we walked past one, what characteristics should we look for and why are they defined as ‘ancient’?
“We generally split trees into three ages: young, mature and ancient,” explains Jill. “There’s a very old saying: ‘The oak tree grows for 300 years, rests for 300 years and then spends 300 years gracefully declining’. By the time it has got to that stage, because it puts on a ring each year of its life, it’s going to be ‘fatter’ than others of the same species. Growing and management can make a lot of difference to girth, and different species have different growing rates.
“To properly assess all species you need a certain amount of knowledge about how trees grow, but you would instantly recognise ancient oaks, yews, chestnuts… they would be fantastically large compared to all others around them.”
Jill also points out that the crown (top of the tree) often shrinks the older it gets. Plus all ancient trees are hollow in parts too, usually starting from the middle of the tree. “It’s a beautiful system,” says Jill. “All the nutrients are recycled from the deadwood produced and reused by the tree and surrounding plants.”
Preserve and protect
Their importance goes far beyond their recycling abilities, however. Not only do they fulfil their roles as trees; being good for air, for pollution, for flooding, for health, fertilising the ground through their leaves and twigs, they have added value because as they age the trees take on different habitat characteristics. “They are different organisms when they’re old compared to young, and that means different habitats and different species are associated with them. They’ve developed over incredible timescales and that ecology relates back to the history of the landscape,” she explains.
Modern technology means we can study these trees in more and more ways and they’re providing fascinating data. So it’s vitally important we preserve them. The good news is that so many of us are helping already: “We have an exceptional number of ancient trees but as most of them are unprotected because of a lack of legislation they have managed to survive because people have loved and valued them, like you would a vintage car, or painting, people value them because they are special.”
It’s easy to do our bit, if you discover one, check to see if it is on the ancient tree inventory, and if not, you can add it. As Jill points out: “Recording them is a lovely thing to do. You go out on a new footpath or another part of the country and suddenly you come across this lovely tree, it’s such an adventure. We need to continue to do so.”
Where to see them
At Ashdown House in Lambourn, there have been 187 trees recorded including oak, ash, field maple, beech and lime. It was a royal hunting lodge, which is where ancient trees are commonly found. The woodland is open all year from dawn to dusk. Go to nationaltrust.org.uk for more information.
St Gregory’s Church in Welford has an ancient yew in its graveyard. Many yews live to 600 years plus, some a great deal longer. One reason for the tree’s longevity is that it is able to split under the weight of very old growth without falling victim to disease in the fracture, as most other trees do. All across the pre-Christian world, the yew tree had incredible cultural significance. Many pagan religions believed the trees were sacred because they were evergreen, so symbolising eternal life, and fallen branches could easily regenerate and take root in nearby soil.
Shaw House, Newbury
In the grounds of this Elizabethan mansion on the outskirts of Newbury is a Cedar of Lebanon ancient tree with a girth of almost seven metres. Cedars can grow up to 35 metres and it’s not surprising to find this species of tree here, as in this country they were often planted in parks and gardens of large estates from the 1740s onwards. Cedar is thought to represent purification and protection as well as incorruptibility and eternal life.
The glorious estate run by the National Trust is home to a few ancient trees including a mulberry, which has fallen but is still alive. Not surprisingly, this tree has Royal associations dating back to Tudor times. They can spread up to nine metres and, of course, have tasty fruit. There is also an oak with a girth of over six metres and a common lime of a similar size. Next time you explore the estate, see if you can spot them.
Wasing Park, Aldermaston
There are around 10 ancient trees of mention at Wasing Park, but you can find two of them in the churchyard of St Nicholas Church. The first is a common yew with a girth of over four metres. The second is a single leaved ash, which can reach a heady 400 years of age and grow to 35 metres tall. In Britain, we once regarded ash as a healing tree and even today it is sometimes known as the ‘Venus of the woods’ because of its mystical properties.
Protect their future
The county’s ancient woods and trees are exceptional habitats, but did you know that currently, they’re not effectively protected from development?
A new Housing White Paper – which sets out the Government’s aims to help reform the housing market and increase the supply of new homes in England – includes an intention to improve the protection given to ancient woods and trees, by adding them to a list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development.
This is an important step towards stronger protection. But it will only make an impact if the specific planning policy relating to ancient woodland is also updated.
The Woodland Trust wants to ensure effective protection for ancient woods and trees and you can help by adding a response via their website before 2 May. Visit campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk.
Find out more
Visit the following websites to see more information about ancient trees.
• Wokingham District Ancient Tree Association: www.wdvta.org.uk
• Ancient Tree Forum: www.ancienttreeforum.co.uk
• Ancient tree inventory: www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk
• The Woodland Trust: www.woodlandtrust.og.uk