Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
In praise of smaller veteran trees
National tree expert Professor Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University gets very excited by old trees. However, he is also surprisingly enthusiastic about smaller specimens often of the sort that most people would pass by; in fact that most people simply never see. If you talk to the public and even to tree professionals about ‘ancient ’ trees, or ‘veteran’ trees they generally expect a sizeable brute, perhaps a great oak or an ash. Nevertheless, there are good numbers of smaller tree species and trees managed in particular ways that are turning out to be very old indeed. Unfortunately, many of these are overlooked and vulnerable to accidental loss or damage when a wood or other site is managed. People simply do not notice these wonderful specimens, or if they do, then they have no idea of their age or significance. Therefore, the search is now on for unrecognised veterans in Yorkshire, the Peak District and the Pennines. This search becomes more significant when we realise the extent to which these are overlooked, misunderstood, and sadly, often mismanaged.
The trees involved include familiar names but not ones you usually associate with great age. Common hawthorn for example, in ancient woods or on moorland fringe areas can be a couple of hundred years old or more, and we have found specimens that seem to be several hundred years old. The truth is that many of these little trees are incredibly hard to date, as their innards tend to rot away so a tree ring count shows very little. There are also no guidance charts to assess age and girth as you have for the big veterans. I hope that our current research will help change this.
Other specimens that we have been investigating include old rowans, a famous Yorkshire ‘witching tree’ often grown around farmsteads to ward off evil spirits from the livestock. There are one of two evil spirits down my way I would quite like to ward off, so I might try this one! When you look carefully on moorland edges, around old farms, on dale-sides, and in old hedgerows you find these trees are all around us. Nevertheless, they need care, attention and protection, and without this, they are easily lost. The old trees are often species that naturally do not attain great size as they mature, or those in part shaped by human hand; what I call ‘worked’ trees; ‘working trees’ but in their ‘retirement years’. They can be old ‘coppice stools’, small ‘pollards’ or ‘stubbs’. Look out for rowan, holly, hawthorn and birch and let me know what you find. These ‘retired veterans’ are also part of the evidence for the exciting presence of ‘shadow’ or ‘ghost’ woods in the landscape, but more of that later.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham is a researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or through this website