How you can help to find and identify Lancashire's rare ancient trees

Fiona Finch  turns the spotlight on four green projects which are both celebrating and helping to safeguard our natural resources. In the second articles Fiona Finch reports on recording an often hidden asset - the region's ancient and veteran trees.

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 7:00 am
Tom Reed, Citizen Science Officer with the Woodland Trust

How old are Lancashire’s most ancient trees and where are they?

Those are questions the Ancient Tree Inventory would love to discover the answer to - and it could with the public’s help.

The Ancient Tree Inventory is a Woodland Trust citizen science project which aims to record the locations of the nation’s ancient, veteran and notable trees.

Ancient oak in Ribble Valley, can be veiwed from public footpath ear where the Rivers Ribble and Hodder meet. This tree has the largest circumference of any tree so far recorded in the county. (Photo: Michael Finch)

In Lancashire the inventory has records of just 27 ancient, 346 veteran and 191 notable trees.

he Trust’s Citizen Science Officer Tom Reed said: “”This area of the UK is under-recorded and there is definitely scope for wider recording across the whole county.”

For comparison, sites like Sherwood Forest Country Park already have over 1500 trees recorded; this single site has over double the number of trees that have been recorded in the whole of Lancashire so far.”

He continued: “Because the ATI relies on citizen scientists and volunteers using their own time to manually record trees to the database, we have a better understanding of ancient/veteran tree populations in some areas more than others, and Lancashire is one of those areas where we have not have not historically had as much recording... yet! There will almost certainly be some exceptional trees yet to be discovered and recorded.”

Ancient trees are important for many reasons - environmental and historical. Tom said: “First ancient and veteran trees are what we describe as irreplaceable habitats. They are recognised by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as irreplaceable habitats.”

But that does not protect them as Tom explained: “Ancient and veteran trees don’t have any formal protection in the UK - no equivalent to scheduled monuments that benefit our rare archaeological sites across the UK. Some are just as old as prized sites but ancient trees don’t get that level of protection.”

One tree, even when decaying or dead, can provide many different habitats for larger animals such as owls, for invertebrates, fungi and lichens.

He continued: “They are also important culturally as well., .because quite a few ancient trees have a back story or cultural ties for example the Major Oak at Sherwood Forest.”

The term ancient has different meanings for different trees - for example the long lived yew only becomes ancient when it is more than 800 years old, by comparison an oak tree would be ancient once it passes the 400 year mark and the hawthorn at 175 - 200 years of age.

Many ancient hawthorns may well have gone unrecorded as they tend, said Tom, to be “scraggly” trees often in an upland environment.

A veteran tree in contrast has many of the characteristics of an ancient tree, but will not be so old:”These trees are of a certain condition rather than a certain age. Ancient and veteran trees can be found in all environments in woodland, upland areas and also in towns and cities.”

He noted that historic parks and grounds of large country estates are often likely to boast ancient trees because they will not have been removed, churchyards and historic buildings and the fringes of woodland are similarly good sites to find them and along field boundaries.”

Information about identifying and recording ancient and veteran trees is available on the ATI website which has special information sections entitled “What We Record and Why” and “How To Record” . The latter includes full details on how to find and add trees to the map.

New volunteers will need to create an account on the ATI website. They can then add a tree via the ATI website.

The website is mobile friendly so information can be added from phones.

Once a tree is added it will appear as an unverified record until checked by one of the Trust’s volunteer verifiers.

The ATI inventory has been being compiled for the past 15 years. Tom said: “We hope it will help identify and respond to planning applications that affect ancient and veteran trees”

It will also alert the public to the need to value and conserve these trees.

He continued: “Our aim ultimately is to build a more comprehensive database of UK ancient and veteran trees. We definitely need to think about the next generation of ancient and veteran trees. It’s important to understand how quickly they are being lost so we know how quickly they need to be replaced. Certainly we want to make sure the inventory is used to help inform tree planting.”

If new trees are being planted he advises that any new tree must not overshadow an ancient tree. The older tree may be in its final phase of life but that can continue for hundreds of years.

For further information see:

* The Major Oak is the biggest oak tree in Britain, with a canopy spread of 28 metres, a trunk circumference of 11 metres and an estimated weight of 23 tonnes. It is thought to be between 800 and 1100 years old .

* The ancient oak tree (pictured) in Ribble Valley is listed on the Woodland Trust’s ATI (Ancient Tree Inventory). This is the largest tree by girth (10.45 m circumference at 1.5 m from ground) of any so far recorded in Lancashire and can be seen from public right of way near where the rivers Hodder and Ribble join.