Skip Navigation

Future of ancient woods and trees secured following decades of campaigning by Woodland Trust

Ancient woods and trees now have the highest level of protection (Photo: WTML)
Ancient woods and trees now have the highest level of protection (Photo: WTML)

New planning rules have at last given ancient trees and woods the highest possible protection from development.

Government amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework come after almost two decades of campaigning by the Woodland Trust, which has had to defend the UK’s oldest and most important trees and woodland habitats from insensitive and unnecessary development.

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive at the Woodland Trust, said:

“We welcome this shift. A country that cares for its future cares for its past. It’s absolutely right that ancient woodland is afforded the highest possible protection from development – it is one of our top wildlife habitats and there is so little of it left.

“And it’s absolutely right that ancient and veteran trees should be considered equally irreplaceable and given the same protection – the UK is unique in the number it has and the species they support. They are both exceptional natural assets. This new policy makes it clear that from now on, loss or damage should only be considered in ‘wholly exceptional’ circumstances, putting them on a par with our best built heritage.

“This is a victory for common sense and a huge step forward, although effective local enforcement will be key. The new changes come into effect immediately; we now expect to see a shift down in number from the current 586 damaging live applications in play as planners and developers take this change into account.”

Rebecca Pow MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees, said:

“This is great news for these exceptionally precious and irreplaceable habitats which are such an important part of our natural history and yet regularly face threats from unnecessary and insensitive development. I am delighted that England’s ancient woodland and its ancient and veteran trees will finally get the protection they deserve in the planning system.”

In making these changes, the Government has met its commitment to improve protection, and has taken seriously the evidence that the Trust and many other tree experts and conservation groups provided. Ministers have clearly listened to the public’s calls for this change, which have been backed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Theresa May announced welcome plans to overhaul England’s planning policy to afford ancient woodland much stronger protection.

New wording proposed by the Government stated “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons.”

However, ancient and veteran trees were not included in the policy amendments, effectively downgrading their status. It meant these special trees would be at risk from development, resulting in the loss of precious habitat.

Ancient woods and special trees are increasingly recognised as one of the UK’s most precious natural assets. These living monuments have evolved over centuries into our richest, most biodiverse land habitats – home to hundreds of species of insects, mammals, birds, fungi, mosses and lichens.

Ms Speight added:

“It’s vital we protect ancient and veteran trees. These are the elder statesmen of our natural heritage. They’re home to hundreds of species of insects, mammals, birds, fungi, mosses and lichens. They stand tall and proud in our landscape, as landmarks, legends and friends. They’ve seen generations come and go. And there’s still so much they can teach us. We all have a duty to protect them for future generations.

“The fact that national policy now does this is a huge step forward.”

The Woodland Trust currently has 98,362 ancient and veteran trees recorded on its Ancient Tree Inventory, which is recognised by the Government’s adviser, Natural England, as the most up to date resource for developers and planning authorities to use when preparing applications.

While many are in designated areas such as National Parks or Sites of Special Scientific Interest, meaning they have a greater degree of protection, many more are not, which, without the policy amendment, puts them at greater risk.

Today's announcement will also help to embed the principles of the Charter for Trees, Woods and People. The charter, which sets out our modern-day relationship between trees and people, acknowledges that ancient woods have irreplaceable value as both heritage and habitat; their unique features should be maintained, restored or enhanced wherever they are found.

-Ends- 

Notes to editors

Media enquiries to Dee Smith on 01476 581121 or deesmith@woodlandtrust.org.uk

The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. It has over 500,000 supporters.

The Trust has three key aims:  i) protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable, ii) restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life, iii) plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.

Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,000 sites in its care covering over 22,500 hectares. Access to its woods is free.

An ancient tree is one that has passed beyond maturity and is old, or aged, in comparison with other trees of the same species. Its canopy may be small. It will probably have a very wide trunk relative to other trees of the same species and it is very likely that it will be hollow. These features are not a sign that the tree is about to die. In fact, even in this ancient stage the tree may stay alive and healthy for many decades and often centuries. All these characteristics are used to help identify a truly ancient tree. However, ancient trees grow in so many different environments and have been influenced by so many factors over their long lives that they may not always have large girths. The older the tree the more valuable it becomes. Dying ancient trees may endure for many decades and by still being present in the landscape continue the biological, historical or cultural connection, as well as providing very valuable habitat for wildlife.

Key characteristics of ancient trees include

  • Crown ‘growing downwards’ or flattening (in conifers) through the ageing process
  • A large girth by comparison with other trees of the same species – (it may have a smaller girth if it is growing in poor conditions or is a pollard)
  • Hollowing trunk; this may have one or more openings to the outside
  • Stag-headedness (dead, antler-like branches extending beyond the crown)
  • Fruit bodies of heart-rot fungi
  • Cavities (eg where branches have broken away), sap runs or naturally forming water pools in branch hollows
  • Rougher or more creviced bark
  • An ‘old’ look which has high aesthetic appeal
  • Aerial roots growing down into the decaying trunk or branches

Further information can be found by reading our Ancient tree guide.

The Charter for Trees, Woods and People sets out the principles for a society in which people and trees can stand stronger together. The Tree Charter was launched in Lincoln Castle on 6 November 2017; the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. The Tree Charter is rooted in more than 60,000 ‘tree stories’ gathered from people of all backgrounds across the UK.