Country: The day of the tree

Richard D North reports

The new contender for the role of the standard-bearer of British conservation is the ancient tree. Tell it not in Japan, where they are revered, and you see sprawling, creaking old things, wired and propped up, like elderly people with artificial hips and Zimmer frames. It is the careless Brits who, with less fuss, do ancient trees the best. But they could try harder.

On Monday, English Nature and other tree custodians launch the Veteran Tree Project in Windsor Great Park. Says Ted Green, a forester and a consultant to the park's geriatric oaks: "We've got 80 per cent of the old trees left in Europe." His next point explains our need to make a fuss. "The Germans have just published a book of their top 100 old trees. We haven't. Yet in parts of Britain you can see several hundred in a few hundred acres."

Old trees are a part of our history. Medieval cathedrals and our Navy gobbled up prodigious numbers. The daughters, sisters even, of the beams of Lincoln Cathedral are still growing in Sherwood Forest. Windsor has trees planted in the 16th century, and they are striplings compared with the old fellows which remain, which may have been saplings when their parents were cleared to make way for grazing.

Many of our oldest trees are with us because they have been worked hard all their lives. They are now suffering from idleness. Massive trunks, cropped for brushwood, have grown and grown, but the top-hamper was kept until quite recently within supportable bounds. Their survival may depend on brutal pruning.

Indeed, wherever you see a tree standing alone and sentinel - say, in a great park - you are almost certainly looking at an artificial beast. In natural woodland there are few really old trees: fire, storms and competition for light keep the forest young. Only being huddled together with its fellows makes a forest tree tall and straight. Lone trees are socially dysfunctional.

If a parkland tree is gnarled and short, it will have been cropped most of its life. If it is tall, it will have been pruned to produce a long trunk.

These thoughts rather prompt one to support the Duke of Edinburgh's line a couple of years ago. To howls of rage from the conservationists, he insisted that it was right to knock down an avenue of old oaks in Windsor Great Park. There were, after all, thousands of older, grander trees in the park; he wanted to lay down an avenue which would stand for several hundred years. And there's no semi-formal landscape without the clatter of the aristocrat and his chain-saw - Capability Brown and Repton knew that. Mr Green stresses that whatever people say about the Duke and the Great Park, Windsor is the trail-blazer in the matter of caring for old trees.

Charles Watkins, one of our best historians of nature, notes that our affection for old trees is prone to fashion. "It was Druidical mythology, then the phoney-medievalism of Robin Hood; now it's bugs," he says: creatures such as the violet click beetle. The invertebrates that like rotting wood have a hard time in the rest of Europe, where aristocrats did not make (or get to keep) big parks, and tidy-mindedness (and war-torn peasantries) swept away old woodland trees. Britain is a bastion for insect life that has survived in a tradition of decaying heartwood running back to the islands' pre-history. The way to safeguard their future is to cherish our geriatric trees, whilst leaving as much dead wood around the countryside as possible.

For a free leaflet on the Veteran Trees Initiative write to English Nature, Northminster House, Peterborough PE1 1UA. See ancient trees in Windsor Great Park, Epping Forest (CL, Essex); Burnham Beeches (CL, Slough); Ashtead Common (CL, Surrey); Sherwood Forest (Visitor Centre, Edwinstowe, Notts: 01623 823202); Clumber Park (NT, Notts); Hatfield Forest (NT, Essex); Croft Castle (NT, Herefordshire); Calke Abbey (NT, Derbyshire); Attingham Park (NT, Nr Shrewsbury); Brockhampton Park (NT, Herefordshire); Duncombe Park (N Yorks).

*NT: National Trust. Call your regional office. *CL: Corporation of London (01753 647358).

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