Ancient trees Q&A with Countryside Ranger John Pring

John Pring

John Pring, Countryside Ranger for the National Trust in the Lake District, looks after ancient trees as part of his day-to-day. Here, he tells us why this is so important and what he loves about his job.

What do you find amazing about ancient trees?

“Just the very fact that they are so old, often the oldest things in the landscape and older than much of the built environment we celebrate – people talk about cathedrals of the countryside and that’s exactly what they are. Just think what an 800 year oak has seen in its lifetime and how many woodland rangers will take their turn in looking after it. If I plant an oak and then spend my entire working life looking after it, it will still be a baby when I retire. It could take the careers of 20-30 people to tend it through its lifetime. People talk about oak trees growing for 300 years, resting for 300 years and declining for 300 – even when they finally give up they still have value as deadwood habitat whilst they rot away. Woodland Rangers tend to develop that long term landscape view for that very reason because you can`t see the results of your work fully – this leads to a more thoughtful, philosophical approach – it’s what foresters call thinking in “tree time”!

“Trees have some amazing stories to tell from the history they have witnessed to landscape trends and management practices. The Skelghyll Grand fir (near Ambleside) and the magnificent Sitka spruce at Aira Force near Ullswater were both planted as a result of the Victorian desire to build villas in the Lakes and then prettify the landscape. The owner planted it as a 6ft sapling with no hope of seeing it grow into the national champions they are today. Wood pasture trees are remnants of deer parks, the ancient practice of enclosing deer in an area to be hunted. Often an old tree, at the end of a hedge line, would have been an important boundary indicator in past times, old trees in woodlands might suggest the art of coppicing –repeatedly cutting back the tree trunk to little more than a stump to encourage more shoots which would be used as fuel and material.

“I often seek out old trees as they are very grounding and a reminder of the really great things about the job we do.”

Why is it important that we know how many ancient trees we look after?

“Ancient trees are pretty much irreplaceable, at least in the short term – they are unique mini nature reserves that are fragile, often unprotected and surviving in challenging circumstances. Britain has a very high percentage of ancient trees, in a European context, so it is beholden on us to ensure they are looked after. That means identifying them, noting their condition, protecting them and their immediate successors and planting new trees. Some do very well on minimum intervention and the tree might need little more than just more space around its roots and crown.”

What did the count involve?

“It took a number of years and it’s important that we continue to recognise them as truly special trees. There’s a lot of technical information about looking after old trees, but I prefer to enjoy them for what they are and marvel how they manage to get water to their trees tops or how they simply hold all that weight up there – its super clever technology really. We will of course lose trees be that from old age, storm damage and disease but equally, old trees have lasted many a storm and in some respects are often more resilient than younger trees.”

What is the one thing that you would like people to know about our ancient trees?

“Just enjoy them. They really are amazing things, having seen so much, survived so much, offering huge conservation value but perhaps sometimes feared and underappreciated and seen as a hindrance. We simply need to accept our responsibility to look after these trees which would be officially protected if they were bricks and mortar. Get to know them – each tree is more than a part of the landscape, it is a living, growing being that responds to its environment and is home to countless other living creatures, big and small.”