After the last ice age, when the climate began to be more hospitable, trees from the continent traveled northwards (the trees didn’t actually move, their population did over many centuries) in the wake of the glaciers. Back in those days our little island was still a part of the continent thanks to much of the channel and north sea being dry land (maybe not exactly dry but it wasn’t sea at least), which obviously enabled trees to spread into Britain. Eventually much of this country was covered in swathes of dense woodland, interspersed with glades, lakes, rivers and bare mountain tops. Then we came in and although at first we made little impact as simple hunter-gatherers it didn’t take long for us to discover agriculture; and to do agriculture we had to settle down and make more permanent structures. The long and the short of it is that we cleared the majority of this virgin forest for crops, grazing and timber until in the middle ages it resembled much what it does today but perhaps with a few more trees.
Medieval and Tudor people (especially the aristocracy) were really rather fond of hunting, a consequence of this was the creation of thousands of deer parks across the kingdom within which deer thrived. A secondary benefit of these enclosed ‘forests’ (not all of them had very many trees) was that they protected some of the largest remaining areas of ancient woodland in the country. Windsor forest, Epping forest, Ashdown forest, Savernake forest and Hatfield forest are all excellent examples that are still around today; though some are unfortunately much degraded and shrunken. Within many of these parks (but also spread throughout the countryside) are to be found hundreds if not thousands of ancient trees, preserved from the axe by the expensive pastime of long-gone kings and queens.
Some, such as the Crouch Oak in Addlestone are the last remaining traces of the former wild-wood, others burst from their seeds after the land had already been cleared, but are still impressive in size and age. Such huge and veteran organisms should not need to defend themselves by listing their quantifiable ‘values’, but if forced they could simply list the vast number of other organisms that they either provide a home for or produce food for. We all know that trees are good for other species of wildlife, but ancient gnarly trees in particular are simply humming with life – despite their external appearance. For starters, all of their hollow limbs, scars, rot-holes and foliage provide excellent accommodation for nesting birds and mammals – particularly owls, hawks and small passerines. Their foliage also benefits a great diversity of caterpillars and larvae, and their seeds/fruit are consumed by many a hungry rodent or bird or insect. Of the utmost importance though is the quantity of dead wood running through these tree’s hulking bodies; hundreds of species of both rare and common invertebrates thrive as larvae or adults chewing, burrowing and scraping into this standing dead-wood – which secondarily benefits the larger animals that eat those mini-beasts.
But like I said, these elderly trees should not need to provide a reason or purpose for their existence that can be viewed on spreadsheets or in percentages – they are worth more than that. Such trees, particularly those in public places, often have great social and cultural value to the local community or even the nation. Before the government invented the internet, people in a town or village would need to communicate to each other via publicly viewable notices; any nearby tree of significant size to be recognised by all would very often act as the ‘notice-board’; as well as a general meeting place for gossip or even the site of local council proceedings. If a tree was old enough it may have developed a hollow trunk, and if it was big enough then that empty space inside the tree was often utilised by local people. Doors were even put into some trees but the purpose may have ranged from being the local lock-up, venue for tea-parties or even strange rituals in those parts of Britain that are a bit out of the way.
So such venerable trees may have great wildlife value, cultural value, aesthetic value and in some cases national value but I think that they can also have a personal value. A lot of superstitions and strange pagan rituals have sprung up in connection with many ancient trees in Britain – anything from ghosts to curses to being symbols of luck and protection from disasters. Perhaps all this stems from the seeming immortality of these massive, knobbled, incomprehensibly old yet still-living things which appear to have always been there. Visiting an old tree, which can be anything from 400 to 1000 years old, imagining what that tree has seen, what times it has traveled through, the changes that have gone on around it, thinking how it has gone through all those centuries unmoving except for a bit of growth – can feel quite humbling. I always feel respect, awe and appreciation for ancient trees that I come across; always glad that it has survived so long, that I have come across it and often coming away feeling a bit insignificant with the knowledge that this already old tree will most likely out-live me.
I recommend (if you’re interested) checking out the Ancient Tree Forum webpage and supporting their important work of protecting, managing, cataloging and raising awareness of very old trees.