Ancient and veteran trees

Ancient and veteran trees

In recent times, the terms veteran tree or ancient tree have come into use. So what is a veteran?A veteran tree may be defined by a combination of factors:

  • its age
  • its size;
  • its condition;
  • its history;
  • its position.

Age or size by itself does not define veteran status. These factors have to be viewed in relation to typical values for the particular species of tree: an one hundred year old birch or willow might count as a veteran but an one hundred year old oak or yew would be an adolesecent! A tree should show some of the following features to be termed a veteran:

  • the trunk should be large (for the species);
  • decay holes present in parts of the trunk;
  • the trunk may show signs of damage and/or bark loss;
  • the canopy has dead wood;
  • fruiting bodies of fungi often present (from heart rot fungi);
  • mosses and lichens are present (epiphytes);
  • a rich variety of wildlife present on/in the tree;
  • the shape or position of the tree is of interest;
  • the tree may have cultural or historical interest, perhaps it was used as the gallows!

Some veterans have achieved their status through their management, for example, pollarding or coppicing. Others through their position and significance - for example yew trees in churchyards.

Why are these trees important to us? Well, there are a number of reasons:

  • They may be the closest descendants of the trees that formed the landscape and forests after the last ice age and represent a gene pool that could be tapped (for example, for disease resistance);
  • Analysis of their growth rings can gives us information about past climatic patterns;
  • They provide habitats for many different species of invertebrates and fungi;
  • They can provide information or evidence of former patterns of land use or management. For example, pollarded willows may chart the path of a former river (that has now run dry).

But veterans or ancient trees are often threatened. They may be felled for timber or for safety reasons (heart rot fungi etc) or simply to tidy up woodland. The management of adjacent land may pose a threat through ploughing and use of various agricultural sprays). Sometimes, disease strikes (as in the case of Dutch Elm Disease) or damage to the bark by people or livestock may allow pathogens to enter. Many older trees were lost in the great storm of 1987 (and 1990).

In recent times, the UK Biodiversity Action plan has recognised the importance of these mature and interesting trees and their role in managed woodlands, hedgerows and the countryside in general.

For professional help with dealing with veteran or ancient trees:


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Interested in veteran trees? then perhaps the ancient tree hunt might interest – see


30 June, 2007