The Hunt for Ancient Trees

First published in 2009:

You’d think because trees don’t move, finding truly ancient trees should not be that difficult. It is trickier than you think. You need to go prepared.

Bring a stick of chalk;
Bring a tape measure;
Bring a pen and paper;
A mobile phone or digital camera is good for recording the find;
Wellies or good shoes is great, but not necessary;
Keep your eyes peeled!

On Saturday morning, thus equipped, Madeleine and I set off on the path behind the village towards a most impressive looking oak. From a distance it looks great, but up close you realise the giant has been vandalised. Some miscreant has lit a fire in its hollow interior, there is also some broken glass, where persons unknown have drunk their bottles of booze.

Madeleine explored the tree, and was mightily impressed by the cave. She dubbed it “Winnie-the-Pooh’s cave”, where the bats live. Bats may well be resident in this tree. There are some interesting looking crevices further up.

I got my chalk and measuring tape out. I measured 1.50m from the ground and made little mark. From the mark I started measuring around the oak’s mighty trunk. I returned to the mark after 5.30m. This oak is veteran, but around 70cm short of being considered ancient. Nonetheless, I jotted all the details down, took a splendid photograph and returned to our house by way of the playground.

As a quick rule of thumb every 100cm equates to 100 years. Now an oak will live for many more centuries than a beech, say, or an apple. An oak can reach 700, 800 years, perhaps even more; the apple around 300; beech die after a relatively young 200. Around our village there are a number of fallen beech trees, which would have been planted in the early 1800s when the textile mill was constructed. Our rule of thumb makes our oak somewhere between 500 and 600 years old, so it is middle-aged.

Interestingly, Edenderry means ridge of the oak trees. Is this one of the last remaining oaks which gave the village its name?

Once we got home I hopped on the Internet and went to Ancient Tree Hunt, where I added the oak to the Register. Someone from the Woodland Trust will pop down and verify the find.

I know about this tree, because I live in the village and I have walked up and down the country lanes and footpaths. We can see the crown from our bedroom. But even somewhere unfamiliar you can soon pick up the tell-tale signs of an old tree: it’s a bit fatter than the others, it has bits missing, a hollow trunk perhaps, or its crown is a bit threadbare.

A while back I was waiting for my return flight from Birmingham to Belfast. As I sat in the departure lounge at T2 in Birmingham I spotted a lop-sided, fat tree in the car park behind the sound barrier. Not being able to walk to it, I sent off an e-mail to the Woodland Trust and someone added it to the Register. In August I hope to have a little walk around and add a few more details and a photograph. From a distance it looks like an oak, but I’ll need to get up close to make sure.

The best way to find ancient trees, is to get out of the car, and make your way on foot, or on bicycle. That way you’ll have the time to take in your surroundings.

Standing beneath (or in) an ancient tree is an awe-inspiring experience. Here’s a living organism that has seen centuries come and go. The oak at the edge of village was already big and imposing when the Scottish and English arrived during the Plantation in the early 1600s. The oak will, barring lightning strike and hurricane-force wind, outlive me and a couple of generations of my descendants. When you stand in the shadow of an ancient tree, you are suddenly aware how short your time on earth is, and really that it is important to do one’s best with what little time we have.

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