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Join the hunt for our hidden historic trees

Friday 06 July 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard dismisses the "tree-hugger" slur aimed at conservationists and reports that members of the British public have a deep affection for their trees - but are surprisingly ignorant of their history

ONE of my saddest moments in the Yorkshire Dales came when a farmer friend of mine who had a deep knowledge of hands-on forestry warned that the three trees at the bottom of our garden would have to go: they had succumbed to Dutch-elm disease and were in danger, in a high wind, of coming down onto the house or a neighbouring cottage.

These were mature specimens and this news came as a severe shock to my wife and I because in our previous wanderings over some 20 years, we had planted dozens of saplings in the gardens of no fewer than three homes - and had never once stayed long enough to see them reach anywhere near their peak.

Ancient Oak near Bolton Abbey
The Laund Oak near Bolton Abbey: said to be 600 years old

Now we were, and still are, far from unique in this love of trees. It is inbred in the British character. Week after week, people protest when nearby trees are felled, even if - like my elms - they are diseased and a potential danger. The very phrase "leafy suburbs" reflects the yearnings of urban man for an arboreal retreat.

Songs like "Hearts of oak," paintings by the likes of John Constable, and the sound of willow on leather are imbedded in our national culture. Yet, surprise, surprise, a survey just published shows that we are woefully ignorant of the history of our woodlands - and the fact that we have more historic trees than any other country in Northern Europe.

The survey was carried out by one of my favourite "green" charities, the Woodland Trust, which has launched a campaign to locate and map historic trees so that they can be preserved for as long as their natural life permits.

And that can be a very long time indeed. There is a yew in Scotland which is some 5,000 years old - older than the pyramids. Many English church yards have yews planted at a time when Robin Hood (a Yorkshireman, it is now claimed, much to the annoyance of Nottinghamshire folk) was allegedly at large in Sherwood Forest.

Here in the Yorkshire Dales, the Laund Oak on the Duke of Devonshire's estate at Bolton Abbey is said to be some 600 years old, already a large tree when Queen Elizabeth 1st came to the throne. Amongst foresters, the Laund - one of few trees with its own name - is so special that every year, its acorns are sent off to all parts of the country to start new broadleaf woodlands.

The Woodland Trust manages hundreds of woods in England, including those below the towering ramparts of the 900-year-old Skipton Castle, a valuable green lung right in the centre of the town. And it wants to know more about other woods, and in particular their historic trees, which are less well documented.

Week after week, people protest when nearby trees are felled

To start the ball rolling, it commissioned a national opinion poll to establish just what we Brits think of our trees. The results were, to say the least, mixed: 92% said it was important to protect historic trees; 87% thought it important to locate and map such trees; but a massive 80% had no idea that Britain has more historic trees than any other country in Northern Europe.

As a result, the trust has organised the Ancient Tree Hunt, launched by the TV lawyer and presenter Clive Anderson, to map such trees before they are felled (the trust is a member of a national coalition of conservation bodies opposed to wide-spread Government development plans).

To do this, the trust needs help from individuals or - even better - organised groups willing to comb the countryside and report such treasures. It is fashionable in some quarters - like large-scale property developers, for instance - to dismiss environmentally aware people as "tree-huggers.

Well, let's call their bluff to help the jewels in the crown of this green and pleasant land. Hug a historic tree by all means. But better still, mark its position and send the necessary info to the Woodland Trust: www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk

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