Thursday, 30 May 2013

A nation of treehuggers

Treehuggers get a terribly bad press. Grainy images of a grimy, heavily-dreaded Swampy spring to mind. But regardless of what anyone might think of the erstwhile battler against the A30 extension in Fairmile, Devon, it appears we are, in fact, a nation of treehuggers.

For only through the hard work of this dedicated volunteer army could the Woodland Trust have published such an important, and worrying, report today.

For the conservation charity fears thousands of ‘precious’ ancient trees are at risk from a veritable multitude of pests and diseases. A large majority of the 115,000 ancient, veteran or notable trees it has classified - mapped with the assistance of this army - could be killed by diseases such as acute oak decline and needle blight or ravaging insects including the Asian longhorn beetle.

And if those perils were not enough, the government’s High Speed 2 plans envisage dozens of ancient trees being bulldozed.

Examples such as the 11-metre girthed Big Belly Oak in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire – thought to have stood since the time of William the Conqueror – or the ancient oaks of Windsor Great Park - one of the largest collections of ancient oaks in western Europe according to the Ancient Tree Forum - could be lost to the nation unless the monitoring of these specimens is continued, expanded and shouted about. 
As could the two in Calke, Derbyshire, pictured here.

Many are tied into our folklore, to our national identity. The oak tree, for example, is sturdy, secure, wise, resilient. Robin Hood hid in the Major Oak. And the Conservative Party didn't choose a fuzzy picture of one as their logo by accident. Their destruction would be as big a loss to the nation’s heritage as callous destruction of great buildings. Have we forgotten the catastrophic loss of elm trees in the late 1960s and 1970s?

But one thing which occurred to me while working on the story was to ask how trees are designated ancient, veteran or notable? And this is where the glorious, amateur treehugger steps in.

Those helpful people at the Woodland Trust provided me with a few tips. Slightly obviously, ancient are ’old’, veteran are ’middle-aged’ and notable are the ’youngest’. But to know one from the other you need to hug them.

A hug ‘is based on the finger tip finger tip measurement of an adult, which we take to be about 1.5m’. Helpfully, ‘this distance is usually the same as your height, and means you can measure a tree even if you forget your tape measure’.

So to identify whether a particular tree is ancient, this guide can be followed (all 'hugs' are 'adult' sized):

Oak – 3 hugs (or 4 to be ‘truly’ ancient)
Beech – 2 hugs
Scots Pine – 1 hug
Rowan – 1 hug
Birch – a wrist hug
Hawthorn – an elbow hug
Cedar of Lebanon – 4 hugs
Field Maple – 1 hug
Sweet Chestnut – 4 hugs
Ash – 2 hugs

The Woodland Trust has been mapping our ancient trees since 2004 when it launched the Ancient Tree Hunt. This literally involved asking enthusiastic tree lovers across the country to give their nearest grand specimens a cuddle. Stretch out your arms and think of England’s heritage, it almost said.

These rough measurements would be submitted to the trust and an expert would then verify the find.

Since 2004, about 115,000 trees have been recorded; a fairly extraordinary survey of our woodland heritage. So it would seem the preservation of our great woodland heritage is
one of those rare subjects which unites the leftie eco-warrior with the landed shire-dwelling high Tory.

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