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The Oldest Tree in the UK: How Long Do Trees Live?

Trees are among the longest-living lifeforms on Earth. The oldest individual tree in the world is thought to be in the United States, where a Great Basin bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains has been aged at more than 5,000 years. This is more than 40 times older than the oldest known human, who lived for 122 years.

The oldest tree in the UK

Here in the UK, the Fortingall yew in Perthshire is believed to be our oldest tree, with an estimated age between 2,000 and 3,000 years. Like many yews, this tree is located within a churchyard and is so large that funeral processions are said to have passed through the arch formed by its splint trunk in years gone by. The trunk has now split into several parts meaning the yew no longer looks like a single tree but many.

If as old as some believe, the Fortingall yew has stood since the Bronze Age. (Photo: WTML / Ed Parker)
If as old as some believe, the Fortingall yew has stood since the Bronze Age. (Photo: WTML / Ed Parker)

The yew is our longest-living species, but oaks and sweet chestnuts can both live for over 1,000 years, while other species have lifespans that far outstrip those of humans and most animals.

What is an ancient tree and why are they so important?

Once trees reach a certain age they are considered ancient. This means they have passed maturity and entered the third and final stage of their lifespan (you can learn more about the lifecycle of a tree here). The age a tree needs to reach to be considered ancient varies from species to species. For example, a yew is not considered ancient until around 800 to 900 years old, while a shorter-lived species, like beech, is ancient from 225 years onwards.

Ancient trees are a vital part of the UK environment. Over their long lifespans, they develop into important habitats for thousands of different species, many of which depend on ancient trees to survive. Fungi grow in tree trunks and roots, invertebrates feed on decaying wood and a whole host of animals including bats, owls and pine martens, make their homes in cavities that open as a tree ages.

Ancient trees support a vast array of life from stag beetles and fungi to tawny owls and pine martens. (Photos: iStock/mzphoto11, WTML/Peter Preece & Alamy)
Ancient trees support a vast array of life from stag beetles and fungi to tawny owls and pine martens. (Photos: iStock/mzphoto11, WTML/Peter Preece & Alamy)

These habitats can take centuries to form, meaning they are irreplaceable if lost. Despite this immense ecological value, ancient trees have no automatic right of protection and there is no equivalent to Scheduled Ancient Monument status, which important archaeological sites have. While some individual trees are safeguarded, many are completely unprotected from damage and destruction.

The UK is home to more ancient trees than many Northern European countries and the Woodland Trust is fighting to secure the legal protection these natural wonders deserve. You can help us by letting us know where ancient trees are located by recording them on the Ancient Tree Inventory. Around 170,000 ancient, veteran and notable trees are already listed, but there are thousands more to add. By knowing where our ancient trees are located, we are better placed to protect them.

Other golden oldies

The Fortingall yew is recognised as the UK’s oldest tree, but there are numerous other trees that have reached a grand old age. Several yews are well over 1,000 years old, including the Ankerwycke Yew in Berkshire, which is thought to have borne witness to the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and served as a meeting place for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.

The Ankerwycke Yew has witnessed some significant moments in English history. (Photo: WTML/John Millar)
The Ankerwycke Yew has witnessed some significant moments in English history. (Photo: WTML/John Millar)

The Woodland Trust has contributed to research that revealed there are at least 117 oak trees in England that are around 800 to 1,000 years old. It’s thought that the Bowthorpe Oak near Manthorpe in Lincolnshire may be one of the oldest and widest oaks in the country, with a girth of more than 13 meters and an estimated age of more than 1,000 years. The tree is so vast that tea parties are said to have been held inside its hollow trunk.

Another famed tree is the Major Oak in Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest. Said to have provided shelter for the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, the tree is thought to be between 800 and 1,000 years old.

Let’s protect our ancient wonders.

Your support helps us fight for ancient trees.