Sunday, 13 April 2008

Ancient Trees: part of our heritage

Kent and East Sussex – the region of South East England known as The Weald - are still amongst the most wooded counties in England. Although the wildwood which once covered the counties vanished centuries ago it left in its place woods of hornbeam and oak, areas of wood-pasture and small coppice woodlands (See my blog archive,Coppicing, 5 August, 2007).

Traditionally livestock would have grazed within this woodland – an historic land practice since medieval times – which eventually resulted in much of it wood-pasture. The legacy of this practice is the historic park of the type that can still be seen at Knole, a favourite hunting park of Henry VIII and later home of the Sackville-West's.

Venerable – ancient - trees are as much part of our heritage as the old manor houses and stately homes we treasure. An oak or yew tree starts to become of interest when it is perhaps 500 years old: they could live to well over 1000. But a beech or hornbeam has a shorter life-span: a 200 year old tree is beginning to be interesting and may well live for another 200 years or more, although there are some over 700 years old!

Measuring the girth of trees is often used as a method of calculating their age: generally if it is large for the species it is most probably of considerable age. If in addition the trunk shows signs of hollowing, decay holes, bark loss or bark deeply creviced then the tree is quite likely to be a veteran.

Counting the annual growth rings – the most reliable method of calculating the age of a tree - is obviously only possible once it's felled. But even then the tree may be so hollow with age that it's difficult to do. Another method of deducing the age of a tree is by counting the number of interdependent wildlife species it supports: birds, mammals, a multitude of insects, fruiting bodies and fungi.

Where I live, hornbeams were used to mark parish boundaries hundreds of years ago. These lines of ancient hornbeams are a distinctive landscape feature which gives the parish a special character, a regional identity and sense of place.

And these hornbeam are not only a feature of our parish boundary but also indicate the work and life-style of our ancestors. Since the 9th century 'dens' were used for grazing swine. The pigs were driven along the drove roads to fatten up on the acorns and beech mast in the woods at the dens: such woods that pre-date 1600 are now termed ancient woodland.

Pollarding oak and hornbeam was a traditional form of woodland management since that time, when the trees were regularly lopped (pollarded) in late winter or early spring to above the height of grazing cattle. The leaves and twigs were used as fodder for sheep and cows and the branches saved for firewood. And in the open landscape large single trees were often pollarded too, on a regular cycle, to create an annual supply of fire wood.

We often have an emotional or aesthetic response to ancient trees: romantic, awesome, beautiful. But there's a growing awareness of their historical, cultural and ecological importance too. If we value all this we must care for our ancient trees; nurture and love them. Only in this way will they remain an integral and important part of our heritage. So go on, hug an old tree!



Tim Noble said...

I found your article on medieval woods interesting. You are right about animals grazing in woods. It's actually featured in the Doomsday Book - they refer to it as pannage. It was important for pigs and other livestock to eat the acorns and other such edible goodies. There used to be alot of other activity in woods too ...such as tanning leather/hides not to mention continual harvesting of wood for fenching furniture making 'bodging'...these days we seem to wan to just leave them to rot. It's why I've bought several woods and now sell shares to people who love woods and are happy to pay a small amount to own part of a wood as a community.

Lucy said...

Glad you enjoyed the piece, Tim. I think its a great idea to own part of wood especially for those who live in town. Somewhere to take a picnic and sit in the woods among the bluebells - their own bit of countryside!

Tim Noble said...

Ye. I is such a relief to be able to disappear into 10-20 acres of woodland, without any cars, or other disturbances...except the occassional deer! Last time I was up there a large hare came bowling into me. I'm not sure who was most shocked. The weather is improving now. So I will have to take my kids up there. Kids seem to appreciate the beauty of it all far more than many adults.