Wednesday, 23 September 2015

How Old Are Yew?

It is National Seed Gathering Season from 23 September until 23rd October.  The Tree council want us to get involved and gather seeds, fruits and nuts to grow the trees of the future. The idea of helping grow the trees from seed made me think about the trees that are already really, really big. How old is an old tree, and why are they important?

Photographer Beth Moon's Diamond Nights 
series shows some amazing ancient trees
Trees are probably the oldest things in your garden. The first ever Bramley apple tree is still alive and producing fruit even though it is more than 200 years old. Cherry trees are old when they're 150 years old.  But yew trees are only old when the have their 1000th birthday and they can live to an amazing 4000 years. That's even older than Daddy!

Very important trees

So, what's so important about ancient trees?  Well, they've been around for so long that they've seen huge changes to the landscape around them, the wildlife that live in/beside them and they help keep a living record of how we managed and maintained trees and the countryside in the past. They also have loads of nooks and crannies and dead/decaying wood that wildlife loves to live in. Bats, squirrels and badgers all make use of trees in some way. Kestrels live inside the hollow cavities of ancient trees and feed on titmice that come to eat the foliage of the trees. Woodpeckers break into the decaying wood on ancient trees in search of some of the 1700 types of insects that need decaying wood to live.  And lots of rare fungi live on decaying wood or in the roots of large trees. Someone even brainier than me called Sir David Attenborough says:

"Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism."

The widest tree in the world is this Cypress tree in Mexico

The importance of UK trees

The UK is of special importance within Europe as we have so many ancient trees here whereas they haven't survived as well in other countries.  There are several reasons why. Lots of them have been in royal forests that have been well maintained by royalty for hundreds of years.  Some of them provided fuel and food so it was really important that they were properly looked after so the supplies did not run out. When public parks were created over a hundred years ago it was often thought that large trees made the park look more respectable so the parks were planned around them. Old trees such as yews in churchyards are very special to some people and thought of as sacred.

The Fortingall Yew is the oldest tree in the UK

Where to see ancient trees

There are some really, really big trees on the Woodland Trust's interactive map.  It's a great way to find out what ancient trees you can go and see near you. Even better, if you know of any ancient trees not on the map you can tell the Woodland Trust abut any whoppers you've found. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland in the village of Fortinghall near Aberfeldy is 5000 years old. It's not only the oldest tree in the UK but it is probably the oldest living thing in Europe. It is harder to find the oldest tree in the world as the USA forest service keeps its location a secret so that nobody damages it.  It is also around 5000 years old.

Could this Californian bristlecone pine be the oldest tree in the world?

How to spot an ancient tree

Ancient trees are really, really wide but not always the tallest.  That's because they shrink a bit as they get older, a bit like old men and ladies! If lots of the following descriptions seem right for the tree that you've found then it is probably ancient:
  • Looks really, really wide
  • Has major trunk cavities
  • Has decay holes 
  • Old physical damage to trunk 
  • Bark loss 
  • Large quantities of dead wood
  • Fungus growing on it
  • Lots of wildlife living in it

How to measure

Measure with a hug!  A hug is based on the finger tip to finger tip measurement of an adult and it is normally about 1.5m.  That means you can get your Mummy or Daddy to measure a tree even if you've forgotten your tape measure! The Woodland Trust has this handy guide for measurements of different trees that could be ancient:

Oak – 3 adult hugs
Beech – 2 adult hugs
Scots Pine– 1 adult hug
Rowan – one adult hug
Birch – a wrist hug
Hawthorn – an elbow hug
Cedar of Lebanon – 4 adult hugs
Field Maple - 1 adult hug
Sweet Chestnut - 4 adult hugs
Ash - 2 adult hugs

The worlds tallest tree is a 115m tall redwood in California.  See its height being measured here.

An 8m cedar being measured 

Hopefully you now want to have a go at growing the ancient trees of the future.  Remember that growing seeds from local trees helps our native species out.  These are trees that have learned how to cope with our local weather and soil so are most likely to survive if we plant them.

Happy seed gathering and planting!

Lulu x

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