It is well known that trees are not only good for the environment, but also for our physical and mental health. It is documented that looking at trees, even through a window, has a mood-lifting effect. Thus it was that at our meeting this week our mood was lifted by gazing at a series of slides of beautiful trees and ancient woodland, shown to us by Alan Hunton.

After a career as a chemist in the oil, coal and plastics industries, Alan decided to repay his debt to the environment, and became a volunteer for the Woodland Trust. The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation society in the UK. The charity was founded in 1972 and has worked ever since to preserve the ancient woodland that remains in the UK, to restore conifer plantations to a balance of native trees, and, when the charity can afford it, to create new woodland. The ambition is to double the number of trees we have by 2050.

Alan brought home to us that when you think about trees, you need to take a long term view. They can live for a very long time. We saw a photo of a church in Wales with a yew tree standing next to it, which is estimated to be 3-4000 years old – there long before the church was built and long before Christianity came to our islands. We learned that Lincolnshire has the oldest living oak in England, about 1000 years old. Its girth is 12.5 metres and its hollow trunk has room enough for a primary school class to sit in it. The deer park at Ripley Castle has the oldest trees in Yorkshire, oaks around 800 years old. An oak at Cowthorpe had been the oldest, until its remains gave up the struggle after 1300 years in 1950.

Alan’s particular interest is ‘ancient woodland’, defined as any land that has been wooded for over 400 years, ie from the time of Elizabeth I. Their origins can be traced to the 13th century when William I carved up the country and created Royal Hunting Forests for his nobles. This was tough on the peasants, who were now prohibited entry, but the Royal edict had the beneficial side effect of  protecting valuable habitats for hundreds of years.

 Land may constitute an ancient woodland  even if it currently bears nothing but scrub. Alan explained that the ancient woodland is distinct from the trees that may be upon it: it’s the soil beneath, that has experienced at least 400 years of continuous growth and decaying and dying. Such an environment can be revived with planting of appropriate native species. The Woodland Trust owns 1200 woodlands of varying sizes all over the country on which this planting has been done.  All are open to the public.

In the nineteen forties and fifties the government found that the UK had a pressing need for wood, but only 5% tree cover. The solution adopted was to plant quick growing conifers, but in the process of producing a lot of wood, many ancient woods were, in Alan’s words, ‘disastrously stripped’. 800 ancient woodland sites have been lost or damaged since the war. Although governments pay lip service to environmental concerns, Alan warned that legislation still permits the destruction of ancient woodland where there is ‘overwhelming need’, which he scathingly exemplified by the construction of the HS2 railway line, which is set to decimate 60 ancient woodlands in view of the ‘overwhelming need’ to shave a few minutes off the journey between London and Birmingham.

In Yorkshire only pockets of ancient woodland are left. Surprisingly, the only ancient woodland in Leeds is at Middleton. Roundhay Park and Temple Newsham don’t qualify, but are described by DEFRA as ‘priority habitat’.

Alan vividly described ancient trees for us.

 ‘An ancient tree is a tree in its last stage of life’ he said. ‘They thin on top as capillaries cease to function. They are hollowed out with defoliated branches, and wrinkly bark with holes in it. You see a lot of dead wood, but they continue to put on weight and increase in girth.’

I’m sure I was not the only Rotarian in the audience to ponder man’s inevitable journey through the aging process as Alan described ancient trees, and felt only partly consoled by the thought that the decaying material acted as nature’s vacuum cleaner, providing home and sustenance to bats, woodpeckers and stag beetles.

As to the future, we won’t live long enough to see the restoration of the glory of ancient forests, but we have to take a long term view. Alan concluded by saying that we need our children and grandchildren to plant trees, as they are the ones who will live to see the benefit. The Woodland Trust has information packs and practical advice to offer when the planting seasons come round in November and February each year.

Get in touch with Roundhay Rotary Club:

0113 266 6203