Ancient Woodlands, Trees and their Future Survival

Ancient tree stump amid Bluebells. © Karen Andrews
Julian Hight’s book presentation slide

Green Wedmore hosted a talk by Julian Hight, author of Britain’s Ancient Forest Legacy and Lore. He is chair of the Wessex Ancient Tree Forum. His beautiful book reflects his origins as a graphic designer with excellent photography. His own fascination with trees began in childhood with the woodland close to his home.

Childhood Inspiration

Julian’s lifelong passion was inspired by a visit to the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, the mythical Robin Hood Tree. Estimates of its age range from 600 to 1,000 years old. It is not possible to count the rings and date a hollow tree accurately.

Britain’s Ancient Woodland

Britain has more ancient oaks than the rest of Northern Europe. Generally, we have less woodland in Britain at just 13% cover, with only 2% classified as ancient woodland. The traditional, ancient portrait of Britain as totally dense woodland has been called into question. Our ancient oaks needed light and space to grow well.

Irreplaceable Ecosystems

Ancient woodlands are classified as woods that been continuously in existence since 1600. They have complex, irreplaceable ecosystems. Individual tree species vary in longevity. A yew may live for 1,000 years. Trees go on providing wildlife habitats in their declining years and beyond – even as mere stumps.

Surviving Ancient Forests

Many of Britain’s oldest trees survive on manorial estates. Ancient yews survive in churchyards. An ancient tree tends to owe its survival to one of 3 factors: economy, religion or community. William the Conqueror created forest law for hunting and his royal forests were not necessarily woodlands. There are 5 main royal forests in Somerset: Mendip, Exmoor, North Petherton, Selwood and Neroche.

Local Gorge Whitebeam

The Saxons had forests before the arrival of William the Conqueror. King Edmund narrowly escaped death at Cheddar Gorge while hunting a stag. This story neatly leads into the endangered species that only grow within the confines of the Cheddar and Avon Gorges. Their endemic Whitebeams are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Tree Protection

Ancient buildings have protection; ancient trees do not. Even Tree Protection Orders (TPOs) do not always provide satisfactory protection. They have to meet the criteria of the Town and Planning Act. There is little protection in law to prevent tree damage. Bats have far better protection.

Proactive Tree Management

Discussions ensued over successes and failures in protecting trees in Frome. Many difficulties have been caused by reductions in proactive tree management and pollarding. Mendip District Council’s Tree Officer, (present in the audience), later explained efforts to preserve a tree for as long as possible, while stressing the paramount importance of public safety. He also related a happy experience: one developer had been persuaded to move trees rather than cut them down. High profile court cases against rogue developers should hopefully help to make this more enlightened approach the norm.

Legal Protection?

Change is in the air thanks to the Greta effect. Julian Hight mentioned his invitation to the House of Lords to discuss trees with Baroness Jenny Jones, the first Green Party member. Environmental issues are non-party political and have broad support across the House. There is a desire to introduce a law like the protection provided to listed buildings. Lobby pressure needs to build and create a bigger picture. It was suggested that the importance of trees would be better understood if they were described as aerial ecosystems.

Community Tree Planting

Concerns were raised that the focus was on planting foreign tree species instead of native species because of climate change, e.g. Turkish Hazel instead of our native Hazel.

Protecting Species-rich Grassland

Where are the right places to plant new trees? There is a danger that trees may be planted indiscriminately on the Mendips’ species-rich grassland in the urgent rush. A considered and informed approach to future tree locations is crucial.

Ash Dieback

On the subject of Ash Dieback, Julian Hight pointed out that Brighton councillors had taken a different approach in tackling Dutch Elm Disease. Ash trees may similarly build a resistance if spared an early axe. Today, Brighton still has Elms.

Inspiring Presentation and Book

Julian Hight’s talk was followed by a long question and answer session from the knowledgeable and environmentally-conscious audience. His words and book inspired everyone to keep discussing trees long after the end of his presentation. The author signed copies of his book at the end of the evening.

Julian Hight signs his book for members of the Green Wedmore audience © Karen Andrews

Book Link

Hight, Julian (2019): Britain’s Ancient Forest Legacy and Lore.

Other Publications

Rich, Tim (2019): Case Study 1. Sorbus. European Red List of trees p11-14. IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Tree Web Links

Local knowledge and input is very useful in recording village trees. Green Wedmore members were invited to add local trees to the Ancient Tree Inventory and inspire other towns and villages to do the same. Trees are described as notable, veteran and ancient.

Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Inventory

Other Web Links

Green Wedmore

The Group meets on the first Monday of every month at The Swan in Wedmore, Somerset. The 2nd December topic will be Food Waste.

Historic England Listed Buildings

Copyright Note

© Karen Andrews

All photos in this blog write-up are my own with the exception of the rough iPhone slide snapshot at the top of Julian Hight’s slide. Please contact the author for an original. This blog summarises some key topics, but is not intended as a full account of the presentation or the Green Wedmore meeting.

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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