Why are veteran trees important?

I recently wrote an assignment on veteran and ancient trees, and thought I’d share the section on why such trees can be considered very important. Below are twelve reasons, though there are, of course, many more than that!

1. Veteran and ancient trees can be, and are, incorporated into modern-day developments; particularly urban parkland. However, they may also be found within urbanised environments, existing as a relic of the olden times. In such an environment, their presence may spark interest in an otherwise largely sterile and synthetic environment, and they may be, and usually are, intentionally retained for their romantic and valuable properties.

2. Such well-aged specimens have a high cultural and historical importance, perhaps locally or even nationally (such as Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, and the Tea Party Oak in Ickworth Park). Books are dedicated exclusively to such veteran and ancient trees, and they are featured in an array of paintings and poems, and in lore. Further to this, their presence signifies past land use. Known as ‘working trees’ in instances where past management is evident, they may be found as old pollards where they were used for fuel-wood and timber, or as old coppice stools. Certain specimens may also mark old boundaries, having once been part of a hedgerow that has since been otherwise removed and may, or may not, be visible as a ‘shadow’.

Tea party oak Ickworth
The Tea Party Oak at Ickworth Park, Suffolk, UK. This tree is thought to be over 700 years of age and has a girth of over 9m.

3. Their ecological importance, given they are the last remnants of deadwood habitats that once existed throughout the ‘wildwood’, is paramount to the survival of a huge array of species, ranging from rare fungi, bacteria invertebrates, lichens (and other epiphytes), birds, and bats. Their structural complexity provides many habitat niches that are not, and perhaps cannot be, present on younger specimens of the same species. Many of the species reliant upon such a habitat are now recognised as endangered.

This line of lapsed oak pollards form an old boundary line, which has since been removed from the landscape.

4. Trees of such stature and age possess inherent, unrivalled value, and are objects of respect within their own right. Their ability to fascinate onlookers through their sheer presence is not something that can be achieved easily. Certain specimens are revered and may even be religious icons of sorts, thereby making them sacred symbols or shrines.

5. Ancient and veteran trees can occur in many different forms ranging from a maiden tree, old coppice complete with multiple stems, lapsed pollard, shredded tree, and beyond. As there is no set rule for how an ancient or veteran tree should look, their diverse characteristics set them aside from younger specimens and can add to their visual appeal.

A massive cluster of stems of a single beech tree, in Epping Forest. This morphology may have manifested after grazing lapsed, and the beech tree, which once grew as a multi-stemmed shrub, developed into a monstrous tree.

6. They can act as tourist attractions, thus providing revenue for the owner whilst also educating the tourists about veteran trees and their importance to the natural environment, their indication if land-use in the past, and otherwise.

7. Such old specimens possess an aura of stability in a world that is otherwise dynamic and changing – they remain as bastions; unmoving, almost timeless, amongst a world that is anything but.

8. Very old trees are more likely than younger trees to be descendants of the trees of the natural wildwood that colonised Britain after the last ice age. This makes them a reserve of important genetic material, which may be critically important for scientists looking to research genetic lineages of plant species, and for botanists and scientists looking to collect seed from very old specimens to continue forth the genetic lineage; or research how they differ from seed of much younger specimens of the same species. As these trees have lived for such long periods, they are obviously very robust and resilient to the forces of change that they have been placed under throughout their lifetime, and their seed may therefore be of use in propagating specimens that are perhaps seemingly resilient in such a changing environment.

9. Ancient and veteran trees can be very personal to many. Whilst their presence may be of religious importance and may fascinate, certain people, particularly those who live near to such an old tree, may form a strong attachment to it, to the point that they almost become friends with the specimen.

10. The annual rings of old trees are historical records in their own right. They illustrate past climate changes or cutting treatments, and the chemical nature of the wood is a potential resource for research into past climates, pollution levels, etc. However, the decay process removes the rings as the tree becomes hollow, research is not always possible back throughout the entirety of the tree’s life.

11. They demonstrate the hardiness of nature and its ability to withstand any length of tumult and still prevail, and can therefore provide arboricultural experts and scientists with first-hand data on the processes a tree goes through as it ages, and can give us indications of recognising and caring for future ancient and veteran trees the coming generations will venerate as such as we do ours.

Japanese pagoda tree Kew Gardens
The Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), planted in 1760, at Kew Gardens, UK. It is now being supported with bricks and metal props, so that it doesn’t collapse entirely.

12. Their fragility, even in spite of their normally visually dominant presence, creates an alluring paradox of sorts, which can generate emotional ties with onlookers. Even in spite of their lengthy journey through time, they balance carefully on the edge of existence, having formed a perfect equilibrium over many decades to suit their context. A contemporary threat that may challenge the fragility of such an old tree, that of climate change, is a principal potential threat to very old specimens.

Why are veteran trees important?

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