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On the hunt for ancient trees

The Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI) is a database managed by the Woodland Trust in partnership with the Ancient Tree Forum and Tree Register that contains over 150,000 records of ancient, veteran or notable trees across the UK added by volunteers. But there are still many more out there waiting to be found. A joint PhD project between the Woodland Trust and the University of Nottingham aims to assist with this by using mathematical modelling and data analysis to predict new locations of ancient trees.

The importance of ancient trees

Ancient trees are important aesthetic, historic and cultural features of our landscape, and the UK has some of the largest populations in Europe. In addition, the dead and decaying wood of ancient trees is a crucial habitat for many organisms, including rare invertebrates, fungi, lichens and small mammals. Unfortunately, ancient tree populations are declining across Europe due to agricultural intensification, land-use changes, development and the introduction of new pests and diseases. Therefore, it is vital to know where our ancient trees are in order to protect them against these threats and to manage them appropriately for their future survival.

My project

I began my PhD in October 2017, and have now almost completed one out of three and half years of my research. The main objective of the project is to use the ATI to remotely predict new locations of ancient trees across the UK in different habitats, such as wood pastures, woodland, hedges, urban areas and farmland. I will use a variety of modelling techniques and statistical methods to analyse the ATI data and then I hope to design robust field surveys to verify my predictions. Wider applications of the project include assessing how ancient tree loss throughout the landscape may impact the dispersal and survival of the organisms dependent on ancient trees, and how we might mitigate this. I also hope to use my findings to predict the best locations in the UK to plant trees to become the ancient trees of the future.

A decaying wood microhabitat in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire (photo: Victoria Granger)
A decaying wood microhabitat in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire (photo: Victoria Granger)

Achievements so far

For the first few months of my PhD I spent most of my time researching literature and publications relating to ancient trees to gain a thorough understanding of ancient tree ecology, their known distributions and previous studies using similar research techniques. I attended the ‘Forests of Essex’ Conference in Chingford to gain a wider understanding of woodland and tree ecology and to network with ancient tree enthusiasts and organisations working on similar projects. Completing training courses in scientific skills such as communication and specific data analysis programmes has also been a key feature of my first year. I am currently developing a model to predict which wood pastures in the UK might contain high numbers of undiscovered ancient trees, and I hope to verify these predictions in the next year.

How I am finding PhD life

I am really enjoying my project and although I have only been working on it for 9 months, I feel I have already learned so much! The majority of my time is spent at the University of Nottingham analysing data, writing up my findings and reading research papers, but I have also been able to attend an ancient tree exploration day and a tree ID day with the Woodland Trust, which really helped me to put my work into context in the field. I enjoy the daily challenges of learning new skills and scientific methods, and I am looking forward to putting them into practice to help protect ancient trees in the UK.

You can get involved in the Ancient Tree Inventory and add to this important resource.

Find out more about the Woodland Trust's involvement in research

Read the research update in Wood Wise