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Securing the future: Protecting our historic treasures

Following the EU referendum result we continue our series of blogs on how to secure a safer future for woods and trees in the UK.

Ancient woodland

We believe that any new plans for the environment should acknowledge that ancient woodland is an important and irreplaceable habitat and that, along with ancient and veteran trees, these critical ecosystems should be protected for future generations

As well as supporting vulnerable wildlife, ancient woods are archaeological treasure troves, they harbour the story of our landscape as living records of past land use.

They are often islands of stillness and tranquillity in an increasingly fast-paced world, a place to truly get in touch with nature.

Increasingly people are recognising the importance of the natural environment and the species it supports, to underpin everything we need, from food production to clean air and water. Ancient woods are key to this; they are reservoirs of biodiversity from which we can begin to restore degraded ecosystems.

Ancient woods are therefore essential for our own quality of life, now and in the future.

How can woods and trees be ‘irreplaceable’?

Surely any wood we plant now will eventually become ancient woodland?

Not so. The conditions in which these treasures of the past grew were very different from today, where much of our landscape is shaped by intensive agriculture, industry and development.

What is an ancient wood?

Ancient woods have survived continuously since at least medieval times, 1600 (1750 in Scotland) is the date used for identifying them on a map. Ancient woods are generally richer in biodiversity than more recent woods.

Find out more about ancient woods

Why is ancient woodland important?

An ancient wood has a wide range of habitats and niches and the relationships between the thousands of species that live there are crucially important.

Find out more about why ancient woods are important

What about the ancient trees?

An ancient tree is one that has passed beyond maturity and is old in comparison with others of the same species. There is no fixed age at which a tree becomes ancient, since this varies with species and also depends on the rate of growth of the tree. For example, a birch can enter its ancient stage at 80-100 years and has a very short ancient life-stage, while an oak starts at around 400 years, a yew at 800 years. Ancient trees can remain in this state for many (sometimes hundreds of) years before actually dying.

But good management helps trees survive. Woodland was often coppiced, and in areas that were grazed such as wood pasture, parkland, and in hedgerows, trees were pollarded. This involved pruning the tree at head height at regular intervals, allowing new shoots to grow out of reach of browsing animals, while the cut branches were used for fodder or fuel. Pollarding can extend the life of a tree beyond its normal span, and many of our most impressive ancient trees are pollards.

The ecological value of ancient trees lies in their longevity.

As trees age, fungal decay causes hollows in the trunk, this may help the tree live longer by releasing minerals locked up in the wood. Hollows create a valuable habitat for rare and specialised fungi and animals.

Often, ancient trees have lived their lives in open spaces, developing broad spreading crowns with very large lower branches; the famous Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is a good example. This creates the widest variety of tree niches; which provide homes for many species, from bats and birds to fungi, lichens and invertebrates. As the most ancient trees die, their companions nearby provide homes for the next generation of animals, and vital habitats are preserved.

Ancient woods and trees play an important role in the UK‘s history and culture. The myths and legends which fascinate many of us have their roots in our tree heritage, as do some of our most important historical events. They have contributed to our story through advances in science and medicine, even figuring prominently in our political history. They, like ancient woods, continue to inspire creativity through music, literature and art.

Ancient trees are not always in ancient woods!

You are more likely to see ancient trees outside woods – in parks or wood pastures, or in hedgerows. Some ancient woods do contain old trees, along boundaries or as old coppice stools, but surprisingly others have barely any trees over 100 years old. Continuous management with felling and regrowth renews the woodland, and in an ancient wood it is the continuity of the whole woodland habitat that is important.

Securing the future of our ancients

Our venerable trees and our ancient woods need a safer future.

The UK’s ancients are iconic elements of many landscapes: their sheer stature and beauty fascinates and attracts people, providing ways for people to engage with and understand the natural world. They are also an important, but under-researched, area for biological and scientific study.

The UK is internationally renowned for its incredible resource of ancient trees - the majority of Northern Europe’s special trees can be found here. Yet many of these living historic monuments are unprotected. Ancient woods receive some protection through felling licence regulations, and planning policy guidance, which recognises their irreplaceable nature. Most ancient woods are recorded on inventories across the UK, and a small percentage are designated as SSSIs which gives them specific legal protection. Despite this, we hear of development applications which will devastate ancient woodlands or trees – even those designated within SSSI - every month.

Ancient trees are afforded even less protection. Since felling licences are not required for relatively small volumes of timber, ancient trees fall through this net, and protection offered through the planning system may kick in too late. A Tree Preservation Order is rendered useless in the face of planning permission.

Following the EU referendum the legal frameworks that protect the natural environment will come under scrutiny, and the grants that currently fund beneficial management (such as restoration of degraded ancient woods and wood pastures) could disappear. Protection for our most important wildlife areas, including ancient woods and trees, must be strengthened, not weakened, through legislation and policy.

The major roles ancient woods and trees play in our cultural and natural heritage merit far more weight than we currently see. A political and social shift towards greater regard for these habitats, and a stronger impetus to protect them, is now essential. They deserve nothing less.