Above crumpled gray roots like the enormous feet of a prehistoric elephant, leaves form a vaulted roof as grand as a cathedral. Huge limbs stretch out for 24m on each side. They smell damp. Stand beneath “the Tree,” as this magical old beech is known to anyone who walks this corner of the Chilterns near London, and you feel in the presence of something living and breathing. Its trunk is polished smooth from admirers who have scrambled into its embrace, and it has even brought its charisma and great girth to bear on films such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
This tree has lived for 400 years but now it is dying. Green summer weeds sprout on the ground below its huge canopy, sunlight now penetrating its thinning head of leafy hair.
“The tree isn’t capturing all the light that it once did,” explains Bob Davis, head forester for the UK’s National Trust at the 2,000 hectare estate at Ashbridge. “It is slowly shutting down. We’ve decided not to do any surgery on it and allow it to decline naturally into senescence.”
In its dotage, this great tree is being carefully nurtured. Across the UK, however, many of our estimated 100,000 ancient trees — which could represent 70 percent of all ancient trees in Europe — are neglected or at risk of being felled. This month, they get a new guardian: Brian Muelaner, a forester turned conservationist, is to count all the ancient trees on land belonging to the National Trust, which could turn out to be the largest private owner of ancient and notable trees in northern Europe. Muelaner’s new job as the Trust’s ancient tree officer will help push along the Ancient Tree Hunt, a five-year project led by the Woodland Trust, which for the first time is recording every ancient tree in the UK.
“If we don’t know where they are, we can’t protect them,” Muelaner said. “If we can’t protect them, we don’t know if they can survive.”
A tree is defined as ancient if it is unusually old for its species. It is said that an oak spends 300 years growing, 300 years living and 300 years dying. Such a long-lived species would have to be 600 years old to be classified as ancient. Beeches are prone to fungal attack and are less long-lived: An ancient beech is anything over 300 years old. Birch trees have even shorter lives; one that has lived for two centuries is very old.
Ancient trees are ecological treasures because they provide unique habitats for rare plants, insects, birds and mammals. When they become ancient, trees such as oaks and sweet chestnuts “grow down,” dying at the top and forming a new crown of leaves below so the tree shrinks and hunches like a very old man. Ancient trees also hollow out: Fungi feed on the deadwood in the heart of the tree and invertebrates such as rare beetles move into the hollows, followed by birds and bats. Three-quarters of our 17 species of bat are known to roost in trees. Some plant species can only survive on ancient trees: Over time, the pH of bark changes and certain rare lichens only grow on ancient bark.
With a laughing Buddha around his neck, Muelaner looks like a hippie rock star, but he is not a tree-hugger.
“That doesn’t do it for me, but I understand it,” he said. “The mood an ancient tree puts you in, it just takes your breath away; you know you are by something extremely important and significant. When you are under an ancient tree, it’s very good for your soul.”