The term ancient or veteran tree is much used by foresters / arboriculturalists. A veteran or ancient tree is ‘defined’ by a number of features : age, size, history, and condition. A veteran tree will usually have a large trunk, often with decay holes, and bark may have been lost. There may be fungal fruiting bodies, together with lichens and mosses (epiphytes); indeed, the tree may support a rich variety of wildlife. This is particularly true of veteran or ancient oaks.
Some veteran or ancient trees have achieved this ‘status’ as a result of being ‘managed’ – that is, through coppicing or pollarding. These techniques modify the ‘normal’ pattern of growth. Species like Sweet Chestnut, Hazel, Willow and even Holly were subject to such management techniques. Holly, for example, was valued as it offered shelter to animals. Woods or groves of holly trees (known as hollins) were not uncommon. It was the practice to lop some of the upper branches from the trees (for the sheep or cattle); this ‘pollarding’ did not harm the tree. Holly, being essentially evergreen, was able to provide some fodder throughout the winter months. In a similar manner, a small leaved lime is to be found at Westonbirt - this is reputed to be 2000 years old. It is actually a clump of trees that have grown from an original that was coppiced. Over many cycles of cutting, the tree has now spread outwards - in a ring of considerable size of many 'trees'.
Some species are naturally long lived without human intervention. One of the oldest individual trees is said to be a Norway Spruce. Indeed, the RHS page on this species says that it has a life span of up to a thousand years. One tree – Old Tjikko in the Fulufjällets National Park in Sweden has a root system that is estimated to be 10,000 years old. The aerial part of the tree is much younger – but the tree has survived for so many years due to its capacity for vegetative / clonal propagation / regeneration.
Non-clonal trees of great age include some of the Bristlecones of California, where trees older than 4000 years are encountered. They grow slowly in xeric (dry) and cold conditions at considerable altitude. However, recently it was suggested that a Yew (Taxus baccata) found in Welsh churchyard (St. Cynog’s, Defynnog, near Sennybridge) could be five thousand plus years old. It has been subject to investigation by dendrochronology and DNA analysis.
Yews are often found in Churchyards or spiritual / cultural sites* and many are old (500 + years). The Yew at St.Cynog’s is big, being some 60 feet wide. It has split into two with one part being 40 feet wide, and the other twenty feet. The ring count has been recorded at some 120 rings per inch! Yews can split or hollow out - with age or due to the weight of aerial growth, without fungal or bacterial pathogens taking hold, causing disease and destroying the tree. The Fortingall Yew is also of great age.
* The Yew has long had associations with religion, immortality and longevity – for some background information, see