The value of veteran trees

A veteran tree is the forestry world’s equivalent of a listed building – although not nearly as precisely defined.

Like those buildings, however, they are defined as ‘a tree that is of interest biologically, culturally or aesthetically because of its age, size or condition’. They are trees that are of special interest to the Forestry Commission and many factors can lead into this: from the age of the tree to its age relative to the same species, or even due to its biological, aesthetic or cultural interest. Size or girth is not a reliable criterion because different species of tree have varying lifespans and grow at different rates. Britain has one of the highest populations of veteran trees in Europe, alongside Greece and Spain.

How ancient trees have survived the generations

These ancient trees have survived through a number of factors. Many were ‘working trees’ in that their wood and leaves were used as part of everyday life. The larger trees were too time consuming to cut down, with the additional risk of felling and then finding the inside of the tree rotten, thereby reducing the value of the timber. This helped protect oak species in Windsor Forest and other locations. Continual ownership of older estates and common land rights also helped trees flourish, as changes of ownership can lead to trees being felled.

Many landscape parks and changes in landscapes have incorporated veteran trees to help lend the parkland an air of antiquity. Many have also been subject to being revered or respected and have been left to grow, such as yew trees in churchyards.

The importance of veteran trees

Veteran trees are often historically linked with significant events. All, however, have historical value. These trees have survived the past, relics of an ancient British landscape. Trees become a living document, showing their origin and a story of landscape management. Veteran trees are often found to be markers that occur at boundary banks or hedgerows, meaning they contribute to studies on ancient land divisions.

Essentially, they are hugely important not only to historical studies about land management and the shifting shape of British parkland, but also to biological lifeforms which coexist with these ancient trees. They provide a link to important genetic material, as some are descendants of the wildwoods which colonised Britain after the last ice age. Their rings are indicators of climate change, cutting treatments, pollution levels and other chemical factors.

Management of veteran trees

Trees of great age are exposed to many threats. The most commonly encountered ones are felling, which can happen for many reasons from agricultural to increasing tidiness; neglect, as many older trees need maintenance to survive; unskilled tree surgery, which includes uncontrolled major limb removal and damaging retaining limbs; changes in water levels, lightning strikes, fire, pollution, disease and bark damage.

Some of the more agriculturally orientated threats are accelerated when land ownership changes. As such, management of veteran trees has become vital in many parts of the UK. Originally, trees were only managed for their timber, bark and leaves – but as areas became parks designed for walking, picnics and exercise, trees became managed for their amenity, aesthetics and biological value. In modern Britain, they must be managed to ensure their species survive and for safety reasons. We must manage them to increase the value of the landscape, for historical reasons, to aid continuity in the trees themselves and the landscapes they live in.

Any tree surgeon should produce a management plan that assesses the site or tree in question. A decision to actively manage an ancient tree should not be taken lightly, as many can be left alone to flourish. You’ll need to assess safety, whether cutting will damage its value in the landscape, whether the cutting will harm the biological value of the site and more. Ultimately, you should not cut unless you’re almost certain the tree will benefit from it and the harm to the landscape and the tree’s biological value will be minimal. Often, the right decision is to do no work at all – but the tree should be inspected regularly to ensure its condition does not change.

If you do cut, you’ll need to avoid cutting in spring, when leaves are opening, or autumn, when they are being lost. Veteran trees can’t cope with additional pruning in these periods. You should also avoid frosty periods or periods of drought. Assess which branches are alive and which are dead, then which type of growth pattern the tree shows. Consider the growth form of the tree, which may show you obvious areas to cut back to and whether there are good branches to leave. Balance is vital too, as cutting at an important leverage point could cause collapse.

As veteran trees require long-term management, you should also not expect to assess the results of a cut immediately. It can take years to ascertain success. Even dead trees are of value, and they should not be cleared immediately. Make the tree safe with remedial work, but avoid any sudden clearing which can alter the light and moisture regime of organisms dependant on the decaying wood.

Veteran tree legalisation

It’s clear that veteran trees are an important part of protecting British landscapes, but when approaching veteran tree care there are legal factors to be aware of. A tree under a ‘tree preservation order’ from the local planning authority shares similarities to listed buildings in that it cannot be felled or worked on without permission. In the event that this order is breached, the local authority can prosecute the owner of the tree or the tree surgeon who worked on it – or both. However, they can still be felled if found unsafe.

There are many ancient trees on sites which are under SSSI/NNR or SA C conservation status. Both surgery and felling must be approved by the relevant nature conservation agency. The wildlife act also protects trees, as any bat roosts or nests must be protected.

Trees also come under owner/occupier liability on private land, as owners have a duty of care to ensure trees are safe for people coming onto the land. An owner must therefore have a care plan in place to assess the safety and condition of their trees.

Ultimately, working on ancient trees is a dangerous and often tricky endeavour thanks to the tools and climbing required and the legality around trees. For this reason, only experienced contractors who carry tree surgeon insurance should undertake the work.

Photo by ripplestone garden

Stephen Lewis

Stephen Lewis

Account executive for commercial insurance, Lycetts

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