Ancient trees Q&A

The ancient Ankerwycke Yew tree

We care for some of the UK's most ancient and notable trees and have been recording them at places we look after. Our ancient trees adviser, explains what they are and why they're special.

What is an ancient tree?

An ancient tree is a tree which is remarkably old for its species and this can vary dramatically depending on the species. All ancient trees are also known as veterans.

Veteran trees are trees which have features of ancientness but at a younger age. These features include missing branches, hollow trunks and habitat features more commonly associated with ancient trees.

What makes ancient and veteran trees so special?

Ancient trees are extremely important historically speaking - they’re living archaeology. They provide evidence of historic land use such as a wood pasture or royal hunting forest.

To add to that, they have amazing character and beauty and they’re incredibly rich in wildlife. One ancient oak has more biodiversity than a thousand 100-year-old oaks. They’re particularly special for their fungi, deadwood, invertebrates and lichen.

Veterans are successors to all of that - they’re becoming the next generation of ancient trees.

How can I recognise one?

Like people, trees develop more character with age, but just in tree time. They start missing branches, they develop fissured bark and they may get hollow trunks, fatter middles and thinner, smaller crowns. There’s an adage which says oaks grow for 300 years, rest for 300 years and slowly decline for another 300 years.

Which trees live the longest?

Yews live the longest, living as long as 4,000 years or more. The Ankerwycke Yew in Runnymede is thought to be our oldest tree at 2,500 years old.

Sweet chestnuts and oaks, such as the wonderful contorted and gnarly examples at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, can live to well over 1,000 years old.

Beech and ash can be 600 years old, particularly if historically they’ve been pollarded, such as the Frithsden beeches at Ashridge in Hertfordshire, while wild birch trees live near to 150, possibly 200, years old.

Why are certain places the best for old trees?

Ancient trees need open growing conditions, which can be found in places like parklands, commons, old royal hunting forests and wood pastures.
In medieval times royal hunting forests were used by the gentry for hunting but the trees in commons and wood pastures were vital for the peasants’ survival. Trees weren’t allowed to be cut down, but material from their crowns was used for building, heating, cooking and provided fodder for their grazing cattle.

How do I report old trees?

If you spot a veteran or ancient tree you can log your sighting on the Woodland Trust's Ancient Tree Inventory (below).

The Old Man of Calke is an ancient tree at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire

Learn more about ancient trees 

In Derbyshire, this veteran oak has come to be known as the Old Man of Calke, due to its tree-man appearance. It's over 1,000 years old and is a relic of the ancient wood pasture that was here before the abbey was built.

Ancient and veteran trees like this are miniature nature reserves thanks to the valuable habitats found within their nooks and crannies. There are around 350 species of beetles living in the veteran trees at Calke Abbey.

You can read more about the ancient trees we care for in the new book, 50 Great Trees of the National Trust.