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Hunting ancient trees at Burghley House

I could not have picked a more beautiful place to spend the day. Well, I didn’t pick it exactly, the Woodland Trust selected Burghley House and Park to hold a short course on the identification and recording of ancient trees.


I have been a volunteer 'creative copywriter' since February, working on revisions to the descriptions of 'dedication' woodlands. There are about 100 of these sites and I’ve only done 15 so far but it has already been a fascinating education. I have visited them all from the comfort of my kitchen table where I search for existing descriptions, visitor comments, photos, historical events and where I rely on my imagination to take me there if I can.

But how much more alive and inviting could I make the copy if I knew just a little bit more about some of these sites, many of which are ancient, and how it would feel to be in the presence of some really really old trees? So I went to hear David Alderman introduce a group of volunteers to ancient trees at Burghley to find out. 

Ancient Tree Hunt and how to identify ancient trees

A few years ago there was a special Ancient Tree Hunt which sought to record as many ancient trees as possible and the initiative is now being built on once again with a new project that will soon culminate in an interactive website where you can upload data and pictures from your mobile, standing in the woodland beside your new-found ancient tree. The old website describes ancient trees as "living relics of incredible age that inspire in us feelings of awe and mystery" and it was not wrong, that is exactly how we reacted in our day of discovery at Burghley. 

(Photo: S Shaw/WTML)

An ancient tree can have several distinguishing characteristics, the most important of which appears to be a 'hollow'. Hollow trees are stronger than those with their heartwood still intact and provide a place that might not only be welcoming for wildlife, but where the tree itself can feed off the internal wood, extracting nutrients from its own decaying centre. Other indicators of ancientness are the presence of fungi, deadwood, including in the crown, holes, maybe epiphytes, and a girth of more than 4.7m (15’). 

We learnt that a ‘veteran’ tree is mature but has not yet reached that third stage of life when it starts to hollow out. It was unbelievable to hear that about 90% of all ancient and veteran trees in Northern Europe are found in the UK. Royalty protecting their parks and forests for hunting and timber may not have been popular with local communities in centuries gone by but a need for continued forest cover then has meant a good population of trees over 400-years-old now. It was also interesting to hear that if you keep cutting a tree it is likely to live longer – and signs of pollarding could mean a tree is particularly old even if it is not very big. A beech tree might live to be over 200 years old, we were told, but a pollarded beech has more chance of reaching 300 or even, as at Burnham Beeches, 400 years-old.

On the hunt

Full of new learning and eager to find some of these grandfather trees we went outside to hunt some down. First stop was an avenue of limes, followed by a lonely but very well protected and small field maple. Apparently field maple is usually an under-storey tree, or found in hedgerows, and sure enough the old maps had shown that this was one of only two left from an old trackway leading up to Burghley House – all other trees having long since disappeared. Weaving knowledge of the trees with the history of both House and country started to prise open whole new vistas for me. We all marvelled at what some of these trees must have seen during their centuries on the estate. Trees as story tellers - that was a new one for me. 

(Photo: S Shaw/WTML)

There were about 15 of us in the group of volunteers and it was a delight to be among others who loved trees as much as I do and who also couldn’t resist taking photos of them. ‘Just one more’ I kept thinking, ‘then that’s plenty’ but I still kept taking just one more. We adjourned to the orangery for the most magnificent soup and sandwiches at lunchtime before embarking on an afternoon safari through the private side of the park where the public are not normally allowed. It was a bit of a Narniatic moment as we were led by the man with the key, through the sculpture garden, alongside the lake and to a gate beside which sat a wonderfully large, ornamental stone boathouse. 

Unlocking the gate and swinging it open, the man with the key smiled: “There you go!” he said as he let us loose into the undulating pastures rich with parkland trees. Then came the very best part of the day.

"Climb us, climb us, you know you want to!"

First tree stop in the afternoon was a small-leaved lime beside which lay a massive chunk of dead wood - at least that’s what it looked like to me. But to David it was a stump from another tree put there purposefully. 

"Someone loves these trees," he said. "You could say leaf litter from the lime tree releases nutrients fairly rapidly and is a quick-release fertiliser," he explained, "but a stump like this will be releasing nutrients into the soil for a long-time to come. This is like a slow-release fertiliser." 

(Photo: S Shaw/WTML)

This tree was also interesting, and a bit eerie to be honest, for an aerial root had appeared inside the hollow trunk to feed off the heartwood and which had now turned into a sort of trunk in its own right.

It was in the 1600s when planting amenity trees became fashionable, that the horse chestnut arrived from Greece, appreciated not just for its potential size but also for its wonderful flowers. We stood a fair while under one of these amazing trees. Its upright branches were themselves the size of a trunk of any normal tree, while more lateral branches drooped to the ground surrounding us as we stood in admiration. 

I wondered if anyone else in the group heard their tempting whispers: "Climb us, climb us, you know you want to!" I could have easily disappeared here and spent the rest of the day hidden in a ‘v’ between the branches 10 feet up.

A buzzard circled high above in the blue sky as we moved through the heading grass towards another field; this one was being grazed by a small flock of white sheep and their young black lambs.

"People revered old trees in the past," David was saying as we approached more great trees. "They were valued for their association with wealth but not really in their own right."

Our next tree had a whopping 7.27m girth and some great burrs on the trunk. These are useful for aged trees as they can send out a lot of growth, helping to make a tree more resilient.

"Burr trees are good to retain," David said, "they respond better to stress." Hhhhmmm.

The next tree reached and even bigger 8.1m at chest height and was possibly planted in 1650. It also had deadwood lying nearby, rotting slowly into the ground. This would be regarded as a hazard, an issue for health and safety, in areas open to the public which is why we didn’t see any decaying wood nearer the House. But here, there was plenty.

The view to Burghley House

The view from the hillside, down to the lake with Burghley House beyond was beautiful. Capability Brown had laid out the grounds and I was just starting to understand the enormous changes he brought to estates like this one. We finally met what was possibly our oldest tree of the day.

"It ticks all the boxes," David grinned, "hollowed, with dead and decaying wood, and a girth of 8.8m."

We loved this tree, may be because it was a pedunculate oak (acorns on stalks, not leaves on stems), again over 400 years old, but probably because we had no choice - it had created its ‘hollow’ in the shape of a heart.

We were coming to the end of the walk by this time; the sun was shining, birds were singing, the occasional duck drifted on the lake, and the high pitched 'baa' of the lambs on the grass was competing with the nasal honk of the wild geese by the water. Over an old stone bridge and along a final avenue of limes we walked before saying our goodbyes and heartfelt ‘thank yous’ before peeling off towards the car park.

I felt my eyes had been opened anew as I drove two hours north towards home and I’m sure there were twice the number of big old trees en route than there had been that morning driving south. I loved being in the presence of those ancient trees, the idea of them telling stories, and of the things we could learn from them. I’d love to learn for example how to better cope with stress but the thought of growing burrs to do so doesn’t bear thinking about.

Written by Alison Eades, Volunteer