Ancient Trees and Pollards in the UK – securing their future, de Jill Butler
The UK probably has more very ancient trees than other countries in Northern Europe. What are ancient trees? They are trees that as they have aged have become fatter in girth, shorter in height and hollow. Different species can live for different lengths of time and the ancient period of their lives can vary from decades to many centuries. Oaks and Yews are some of the oldest trees in Europe. We are learning more about them all the time and maybe in the 21st century we will start to fill the gaps in our knowledge about old trees and change attitudes to younger trees and how to care for them.
A brief story of pollards and ancient trees in the UK
In the UK we have had, in the past, a rich tradition of pollarding. We have evidence that the history of pollarding in the UK is very old, therefore this tradition is also of great significance for our European heritage and how past use may make a resurgence in the future. London is circled by areas of pollarded trees – these places provided wood fuel for the bakers of the growing city, especially hornbeams, because their wood was prized for making the best bread.
Ancient wooded pastures comprise a mosaic of very open woodland, small groups of trees, scrub, individual open-canopied trees and patches of open grassland. The history of such sites is linked to deer and the value placed on them as status symbols by the aristocracy of Europe. The Kings of Europe protected key concentrations of ancient trees as a by product of 1000 year old Forest Law.
In these wooded pastures or parklands the tree species is often very varied, however typically there are large, old trees present such as oak Quercus robur, ash Fraxinus excelsior, beech Fagus sylvatica in pastures with a long continuity of grazing.
In the UK we have a very special heritage of old trees. William the Conqueror 1066-1087 because he loved hunting had a lasting impact on our landscapes and our rich inheritance of old trees that we can see clearly today. He and the Mediaeval Kings brought Forest Law to protect grazing and deer and did much to support commons and commoners rights. The Tudor kings brought in the first tree protection legislation to protect trees that were necessary for going to war.
Historians have overlooked the significance of trees and especially pollards and tree crown cutting in old documents. In the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of William the Conquerors conquest of Britain they describe the treework in the tapestry as felling to make the boats, but there are no felled trees. These trees are instead being pollarded to take and use the branch wood.
Sub-fossil pollards have been recently dug up out of the gravel beds of the River Trent in the Midlands of England. They are oak and have been carbon dated as 3400 years old. It is easy to compare them with old dead pollards found today. Another sub-fossil has been dug up from the gravels of the River Meuse or Mass, the major European river that flows through Belgium and the Netherlands to the North Sea, and re-erected on the banks as evidence. They can be compared with typical hedgerow pollards in France. This is evidence of a very old tradition of cutting tree to provide essential everyday materials and products for people – rich and poor.
Our Europe-wide heritage of pollarding stretches from Portugal in the west to at least Turkey in the east. In places like this tens of species new to science are being discovered. We have yet to fully explore their value for history, culture and biodiversity. It is urgent that we raise awareness of their value before these areas are cleared for intensive forestry or agriculture. The cutting of pollards also stretches from Scandinavia in the North to the great dehesas of Extramadura and the Mediterranean where hundreds of square kilometres give us examples of ‘Two tier’ agriculture or silvopastoralism or agro-forestry – trees combined with grazing or cultivation. This tradition stretches across alpine Europe to Romania and the Black Sea. And there are very individual landscapes such as these along river valleys with Black poplar pollards in Teruel region of Spain. Cutting took place of not just deciduous trees but conifers.
They are all part of the picture that we are building of this European tree cutting heritage. We know now that trees have been cut in many different traditional ways for different reasons and products. There is a special terminology that goes with the different forms and styles of cutting. Much of this old language is dying out.
The trees help create beautiful, historic landscapes that we believe our ancestors valued and appreciated for their beauty as much as we do today as well as for their well being.
Past recognition of the aesthetic value of ancient trees and pollards
Many old masters have images of ancient trees, old pollards and fallen decaying wood. This was especially popular during the Romantic period in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Biodiversity significance of ancient trees and pollards
As well as their importance as records of cultural traditions that have lasted for thousands of years, these old trees carry with them other species through time. As trees age they change and provide different habitats for different creatures – as old trees are rare the species associated with them are rarer still. The most special species associated with old trees are the fungi that decay the wood and are associated with the roots as mycorrhizal fungi, the invertebrates living on the decaying wood and the lichens that live on old bark. Other species such as birds, bats, other mammals and reptiles take advantage of the cavities and hollows that are created as trees age.
We are still finding species new to the UK in our concentrations of ancient trees and discovering more trees with associated Natura 2000 species. In the UK the Natura 2000 species that are relevant to these trees are a couple of species of saproxylic beetles as there is a serious omission in the Habitats Directive annex which does not include any fungi or lichens –some of the most characteristic and specialised species of ancient trees.
Most ancient trees are very special because they are so old and are the oldest examples of their species. For example yews hanging on a limestone cliff face have been recently discovered and are thought to be over 2 thousand years old and started life when the Romans occupied England.
Securing a future for ancient and historic trees
We, two non-government organisations, the Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum are lobbying in the UK and the EU to secure a future for our ancient trees, our ‘working’ trees or pollards and the landscapes that they have been part of for thousands of years. We are trying to raise awareness of their significance, trying to raise standards of management of old trees so they can live long lives and we want to map them so that we can quantify the resource.
Why is this priority? Because there is good evidence In the UK that we have lost so many in recent times.
In the UK our characteristic hedges and stone walls forming land and field boundaries are being removed or disappearing because of neglect. In the past 150 years the tradition of pollards in hedgerows has almost died out in the UK and can only be glimpsed in a very few locations. The map shows an area of Yorkshire and all the red circles with crosses are pollards that were marked on old maps that are no longer present today. A scatter of old oak pollards that is all that is left.
Our recent research has also shown that Trees outside Woodland (TOWs) can represent the equivalent of 7% canopy land cover in some lowland parts of England. So loss of these trees will have great implications for society.
The Ancient Tree Hunt – mapping our ancient trees and pollards.
At least since Shakespeare people have been interested in ancient trees. Great tree hunting is part of a roughly 340 year old historic tradition started by Charles II whose life and the lives of two friends fleeing with him, was saved by a hollow pollard.
Charles II sent out John Evelyn in the 1660s to learn more about the state of the nation’s trees and therefore a key resource for going to war. At the back of the report that Evelyn wrote was the first list of the greatest trees of England. Evelyn is believed to have planted sweet chestnuts at Greenwich Park in London – which will feature in the 2012 London Olympics.
Each, individual tree is recorded and located on detailed maps. Each tree is verified and for the majority of trees there are pictures to illustrate the tree on line. We now have 70,000 trees on our database collected by ordinary people and specialist surveys and this is just the start.
The small remnants of pollard hedgerow in Belgium are now so rare and special that they are protected by national legislation. The historic system of oak trees providing natural fertilisation and wood fuel supported the cereal fields. Despite the poor quality of the soil, this village was able to export bread to local towns.
Management of lapsed pollards (trees that have not been cut in a very long time and are top heavy) may be necessary to stop them catastrophically collapsing. Such work needs to be thought through carefully to make sure that the intervention is correct for the tree and is as cost effective as possible. We aspire to learning about and giving best practice management advice in the care of old trees.
Back to the future: a role for pollards in sustainable agro-forestry landscapes of the future.
In Norway, research has shown that greater productivity is generated in fields with pollard trees (agro-forestry) than in fields without trees fertilised by manmade fertilisers. And in addition every few years there is a product from the trees in fodder and in wood fuel.
Are we watching the end of an era of custom and tradition? Is our European heritage of cutting trees no longer of value in modern society? Will scenes like drying fodder on trees in Turkey never be seen again in most places where once they were widespread?
Or will there be renewed interest in the value of such trees? In the UK there is a growing interest in the nutritional value of meat that is produced through more natural grazing on grass pastures. It is clear that animals can tell us a lot about what they prefer if they are given the chance. Given half a chance many animals prefer leaf fodder particularly at certain times of the year. Cattle can be seen picking out the leaves with the most green spots left on them. These spots are caused by fungi that draw in nutrients from the rest of the leaf into their living area. The phenomenon of fungi keeping parts of the leaf alive can be seen on many different types of leaf.
Two old pollard sallow (salix) trees close to an old animal enclosure. Sallow is known to have medicinal benefits and we know that animals will self medicate themselves on sallow leaves and twigs.
So there are great benefits to man and stock from such trees – aspects that we are only just putting together. Plantations of deciduous trees are being looked at for production of fodder and wood fuel.
Also the most modern of agro-forestry experts are creating demonstrations of potential agro forestry systems formed by alleys of trees with grazing or arable cultivation between the rows. The distances between rows have been researched and 20m is the best for the benefits from the trees without too much loss of cultivated area. Trees give shelter and nutrients and can be cut for short rotation coppice or timber or planted as fruit trees or pollards for wood fuel.
In the UK we know that we need to plant many more trees as we are one of the least wooded countries in Europe. As an alternative to woodland planting we could replace lost hedges or replace post and wire fences with traditional hedges and trees. This would bring enormous benefits to sustainable farming without loss of crop able or grazing area. It would look very attractive and sequester carbon.
In the last few years this astonishing pollard has been found within the city of London. Our ancient trees and pollards are magnificent. We the ATF and the Woodland Trust believe that their future should be safer than it is at present.