What's the problem?
Despite what many people would assume, neither ancient woods nor ancient trees are protected in their own right. The term 'ancient woodland' is a cultural definition that was first coined by the late historian and ecologist, Oliver Rackham. Ancient woodland, and ancient trees, do not have any legal status.
In each country of the UK there are policies which offer them some defence from, for example, planning impacts. But these can be ignored and formal guidance which has been designed to protect ancient wood and trees can be exploited. And anyone who wants to defend an ancient or veteran tree from loss or damage can only call on the Tree Preservation Order (TPO) system, which does not currently recognise ancient or veteran trees for their own sake.
So much of the value of ancient woodland habitat is hidden in its undisturbed soils, and the different types of habitat do not always look like the stunning bluebell woods which the name might typically conjure up. Some of our oldest trees can also look pretty unassuming too, and are often dying or dead - while this makes them incredibly valuable for wildlife, sometimes people can find it hard to understand why these trees are worth protecting. As a consequence, the quality and importance of an ancient wood or tree is often challenged, or even disregarded. This makes our ancients extremely vulnerable.
The impacts of flawed decision-making can be seen relatively quickly, when woods are cleared or trees chopped down. The impacts of wider threats are less obvious but are just as serious - especially when looking at them as a whole and seeing the effects across the landscape. These include:
- over-grazing and the creeping menace of pollution due to land-use changes and intensive agriculture, which can ravage delicate ecosystems;
- the onslaught of pests and diseases which continue to put pressure on already rare and dependent species;
- shock and damage to habitats from extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change;
- limited progress on the commitments that have been made around restoring damaged sites and improving their biodiversity within the nation's forests (the Public Forest Estate);
- neglect, and premature ‘tidying away’ - especially of ancient and veteran trees in both urban and rural locations.
- Grant limitations are creating a barrier to investment in woodland restoration. The lack of grants is also hindering new planting. Both woodland restoration and new tree planting are urgently needed, to help buffer and expand ancient woodland, boost the struggling hedgerow network, and to support and grow the next generation of ancient and veteran trees.
- Can we understand what we have, and what we are losing, when there is no centralised dataset or official effort to comprehensively identify what woodland and tree we do have, or to monitor losses?
What can I do?
We need you to help us prove that we are not alone in caring about ancient habitats. We will use the numbers the campaign generates to help convince the Government and local authorities that they need to act, and may include comments (anonymously) as quotes in resources and related publications aimed at influencing decision-makers - for example, in consultation responses or campaign materials.
What is the Trust doing already?
We actively defend ancient woods and trees from development, challenging planning applictions and influencing local and national policy on behalf of ancient woods and trees. We support local campaign groups to fight for the special trees and wooods that matter to them. We've established a network of volunteer Species Champions and Councillor Tree Champions to act as ambassadors within government. We also helped to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees. The Trust acts as the Secretariat for this important group, which can have a lot of influence particularly in a hung parliament. Along with our campaign activity and the Champions network, the APPG helps support our lobbying work.
What exactly are these 'precious habitats' anyway?
The term 'ancient woodland' defines an area that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD, so these sites have been wooded since at least maps began. Having evolved over hundreds of years, they have developed into complex, uniquely stable ecosystems which can't be re-created, or picked up and moved elsewhere. New tree planting will never evolve into a habitat of the same ecological value as today's ancient woodland. This makes ancient woods irreplaceable.
Ancient woodland is our richest wildlife, containing a high proportion of rare and threatened species - many of which are completely dependent on the particular conditions within. For this reason ancient woods are reservoirs of biodiversity, and because the resource is limited and highly fragmented, they and their associated wildlife are particularly vulnerable to change.
There are different types of ancient woodland:
- Ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) – mainly made up of trees and shrubs native to the site, usually arising from natural regeneration. The soils of ancient woods have never been ploughed or disturbed. Their long continuity and lack of disturbance means ancient woods are often also living history books, preserving archaeological features and evidence of past land use, from earthworks to charcoal pits. They represent a living cultural heritage - nature's equivalent to our man-made cathedrals and castles.They can also be places of great aesthetic appeal, making them attractive for recreation and the many benefits this can bring in terms of health and well-being.
- Plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) – areas of ancient woodland where the former native tree cover has been felled and replaced by planted trees, usually non-native species such as conifer, for commercial purposes. Long-Established woodlands of Plantation Origin (LEPO) in Scotland is a category interpreted as plantation origin from maps as early as 1750 and which has been continuously wooded since; these sites can be as rich as ancient woodland. The introduction of exotics and invasive species has had a detrimental and disrupting effect on native woodland biodiversity. Although affected by the introduction of other species, evidence shows these woods still retain valuable biodiversity and cultural features from their past - from specialist plants, deadwood, pre-plantation and relic native trees and also archaeological and cultural remains.
- Priority wood-pasture and historic parkland - may derive from medieval hunting forests, or from wooded commons. Many are also designed landscapes, often associated with big estates dating from the 16th century. Wood-pasture and parkland are areas that have historically been managed by grazing and therefore have a very open structure, often with open grown trees.They tend to have large trees, many of which are veteran or ancient. Many species are still reliant on the open-grown and veteran characteristics of the trees and through careful management, the trees can be retained and further tree establishment undertaken to provide habitat continuity. However many ancient wood-pastures have lost trees, or they are in poor condition and the land around them damaged by intensive agriculture, especially through cultivation and reseeding or overgrazing. The openess of the habitat can often be a justification for proposing development between the remaining features. Many sites have not been included in the Ancient Woodland Inventory because their low tree density meant that they didn’t register as woodland on historical maps.
Ancient and other special trees
The term ‘ancient’ is applied specifically to trees that are ancient in years. The number of years required to attain ancient status could vary according to the tree species, climate, soil type, and other factors that influence the growth rate and longevity of trees. Trees like these can be found as individuals or in groups within ancient wood-pastures, historic parkland, hedgerows, orchards, parks or other areas. These trees are living monuments which continue to make an important contribution to our culture and history as well as our landscapes. But that’s not properly recognised. They also have immense ecological value as each tree has evolved a unique ecosystem of its own - like mini planets! Yet our battlefields and stately homes have more protection than our oldest and most special trees.
Ancient and veteran trees are highly valued for:
- the sense of inspiration, fascination and awe they instil in people when faced with a living plant older than many human generations
- their importance as a repository of genetic information from many centuries past
- the many habitat niches they provide – especially the dead wood found in living trees
- their role in providing local distinctiveness, structure and interest to landscapes
- the historical and cultural links they provide to past generations and communities.
Each ancient and veteran tree is a true wonder of nature. But their contribution to our history and their cultural value is undervalued, and they face many risks. Ancient and other culturally significant trees do not enjoy national recognition, and a lack of specialist management advice and mapping means they could vanish easily from the landscape. As older trees age they may require specialist care, which can be costly and this makes them particularly vulnerable to poor management and neglect. In addition, while Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) can protect remarkable trees through the planning system, this tends to be a reactive, rather than a proactive, way to safeguard them from development. Planning permission overrides a TPO.
Heritage orchards and hedgerows
A hedgerow is a line of woody vegetation that has been subject to management so that trees no longer take their natural shape. These are also known as ‘managed’ hedgerows. There are also ‘relict’ hedgerows that were originally planted as hedges but are no longer managed.
Hedgerows are much more than just boundaries: they can date back to prehistoric times and can help tell the history of human interactions with the land. As the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK, hedgerows support a large diversity of flora and fauna and provide important food and shelter for many different species including invertebrate mammals and birds, some of high conservation status. There are 130 Biodiversity Action Plan species closely associated with hedges and many more that use them for food and/or shelter during some of their lifecycle. They are a good source of food (flowers, berries and nuts) for invertebrates, birds and mammals. In intensively farmed areas they offer an important refuge. Hedges also provide connectivity between other habitats, such as woodland, across less wildlife-friendly areas, such as large arable fields.
However, during the 20th century an estimated half of all hedgerows were lost from the countryside, the majority due to agricultural intensification between the 1940s and 1970s. The 2007 Countryside Survey of Great Britain found the length of ‘managed’ hedgerows had declined by 6.2% between 1998 and 2007, and only 48% of what remained was in good structural condition. As a threatened habitat, there is a dedicated Hedgerow Biodiversity Action Plan. Hedgerows are important for humans too; providing a wide range of services that help support the healthy functioning of ecosystems.
Traditional orchards are considered to be of considerable ecological value, providing a mosaic of scrub, hedgerow and grassland habitats, all valuable for a wide range of animals and plants. This is in addition to the value of the fruit trees themselves, which can be important for saproxylic (deadwood dependent) insects. Traditional orchards were added to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a Priority Habitat in 2007.
Fruit orchards are quintessential to many British landscapes. Kent is known for its apples, cherries and cobnuts; Gloucestershire its Perry pears; Shropshire its damsons, and Herefordshire, Devon and Somerset their cider apples. They also have strong cultural and aesthetic value, making an important contribution to the genus loci in many parts of the UK. But nowadays orchards are considerably fewer in number and area - declining by 57% since 1950. Although there may be a perception that traditional orchards are being replaced by modern intensively managed orchards, most direct losses have in fact been through conversion to agriculture or housing.
A number of features of traditional orchards set them apart from modern, more intensively productive orchards, including:
- the use of full or half standard trees, rather than more easy to crop bush forms. Taller trees mean that traditional orchards can be, and often are, grazed by livestock
- the use of old traditional fruit varieties, and in some cases a wider range of varieties in a single orchard
- wider spacing between trees.
- older trees; partly because modern orchards are grubbed up and replace trees on a more regular cycle, and partly as a function of the fact that many traditional orchards are no longer being actively managed.
The existing role of non-cropping trees could be significantly enhanced to include a supporting role for pollinators, and also for beneficial insects and birds as part of an integrated pest management strategy.