Ancient trees

Ancient trees are extremely important to the Island because they are an essential link in the Island’s fabric and the story of the land. Like old buildings, they are part of the island’s history and culture, and remind us that life continues for many hundreds of years, before and after our life-span.  It is a sobering thought indeed to realise that an old tree standing before you could have been alive during Elizabethan times when William Shakespeare was writing his plays, and when the Spanish Armada sailed to conquer Britain. Some trees such as yews can be thousands of years old, going back to a time well before Jesus was alive. The Borrowdale Yew in Cumbria is estimated to be 3,500 years old. Other species such as oaks can live upto 1,000 years.

An ancient tee is defined by experts as being: a tree which, because of its great age, size or condition, is of exceptional value culturally, in the landscape, or for wildlife. On the Isle of Man, an ancient tree is defined as being over 300 years old.

They are extremely important for ecology because a single tree can provide a  rich habitat for birds, fungi, and insects. Surveys have shown that an individual tree, such as an ancient oak, can support thousands of different species.

They are also unique in the variety of wildlife that they sustain. Holes and hollows provide homes for bats and small birds. The loose bark sustains a huge variety of insects, and dead wood provides nutrients for different fungi. Literally thousands of different species can be found living on and in a single old tree, which makes them extremely valuable for sustaining a healthy island biodiversity for the island’s wildlife.

Ancient trees do not necessarily need to be huge in size, although they can be. The diameter of the trunk is often a better indicator of age than the height or spread of a tree, as the canopy of old trees tends to contract with age. The trunks of oaks and ash usually shrink in height with age, and can become very squat and of very large diameter. Ancient trees often  shrink by 1/3 of their original size, and can loose large branches or even 1/2 of the original trees. Large sections or branches can often be found lying on the ground, and are an indication that this particular tree is reaching veteran status. It is as though the tree knows that to survive in strong winds that it must shed some of its top weight.

Sometimes a veteran tree can split in half and the centre part of the tree rot out completely into a hollow tube. This does not necessarily mean that the tree is now unsafe and should be felled, but that the oldest part of the trunk (the heartwood) has died off. The remaining outer shell of the tree can still be extremely robust and strong, and the tree live on for another century or more. However, the rotten wood inside the tree is often where the greatest diversity of wildlife exists, and why it is important to preserve and protect this tree from being felled.

If the Island were to loose any of its most ancient trees, with no protection being offered to being cut down and removed, it would be an enormous loss to our countryside, and our heritage. Ancient trees grace our landscape!

Veteran trees can occur just about anywhere – however gardens, riverbanks, church yards and hedgerows are all good places to start looking for them.

There are potentially hundreds here on the Island.

So the next time that you are out wandering the countryside, have a good look at the trees that you are passing. Do any of them look really gnarled and shrunken? Do any of them have parts which have died off, with large pieces lying on the ground? Has the trunk split open, with parts decayed and missing? If so, then it could be an ancient tree.

How to recognise them –

  • They are often squat in proportions, having shrunk considerably with age.
  • They often have large diameter trunks in relation to their height.
  • Parts of the tree may have already died off, with pieces of the original tree on the ground.
  • The trunk may have become hollow, or split into sections, and only one part is still alive.
  • They are often found near very old buildings, or around old churches, or could be just standing on their own in the corner of a field, gnarled and not significant, un-noticed and part of a hedge..