Trees improve with age, they say life begins at 40 for us humans but for a mighty Oak the glory years begin at 300-400 years of age! Decaying heart wood, losing limbs or even the crown of a tree is viewed by many as a negative thing. However, this is a completely normal part of the tree’s aging process- just like us going grey or a bit podgy around the middle! Trees live happily and can thrive for centuries following such losses and development of wood decay. 

The key features important for biodiversity come about due to the age of these living monuments that are often gnarled, holed and hollowed. Crucially, the fungal induced wood decay found within veteran and ancient trees is found nowhere else and provides ecological continuity spanning centuries.

As trees age and decay they provide lots of different niches and micro habitats- fissured bark; exposed heart wood; hollows; cracks; rot holes; sap runs; standing and fallen deadwood to name but a few. It is these features that that support a vast array of threatened wildlife. 

More than 1800 invertebrate species rely on decaying wood in Britain and Ireland, including 14 Priority species. Ranging from the impressive Stag Beetle, beautifully coloured click beetles, striking hoverflies to tiny fungus feeding clown and rove beetles. Seven species are at risk of extinction in England by 2020 (for example the Violet Click Beetle), and many are found on just a single site or are restricted to a very small number (i.e Variable Chafer and Royal Splinter Cranefly).

Over 50 Priority lichens and over half of our Priority fungi (35 species) are associated with old trees or decaying wood, of which 10 are at risk of extinction by 2020. Two extreme examples are the Geranium Firedot lichen, now restricted to just two trees in England, and the Gilded Domecap fungus which is restricted to just one site in Britain. Ancient trees are important habitats for all 17 species of bat that breed in the UK (seven of which are Priority species). Bechstein’s, Barbastelle and Noctule bats roost extensively in ancient trees. Specialist birds of ancient trees include woodpeckers and owls, the declining Lesser Spotted Woodpecker requires old open grown trees to nest and feed.

Ancient trees are living monuments and winter is the perfect time to see and photograph their wonderful physical form. Next time you visit your local patch, go for a snowy ramble or you’re walking off your Christmas dinner keep your eyes peeled for old, veteran and ancient trees. Take a moment to look at their form and the wonderful features that provide homes for our threatened species.  We would love to see your photos of ancient trees- the gnarlier, holed and hollowed the better! #ourancients.  

Sarah Henshall

Project Manager for Ancients of the Future.