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The Importance of our Ancient Trees

The Importance of our Ancient Trees

Guest blog by Ted Green, founder of the Ancient Tree Forum

Rather than dominate, let's work with trees for a better, more sustainable future.

As a small boy, growing up during the Second World War, I used to spend a lot of time among trees. I ran wild and played in Winsor Park with ancient oaks for company. When you spend a lot of time around those great gnarled trunks you realise that you’re amongst living beings that have been on this earth for hundreds of years. It always gave me that sense of continuity and serenity that I think modern man misses.  

My name is Ted Green and I’m the founder of the Ancient Tree forum. It’s my job to go round the country and Europe in fact across the world talking to people about the usefulness and importance of ancient trees as part of our history, culture, gene banks and reservoirs of essential biodiversity.

ancient tree stump

A Short History of Trees and Us

If you rewind a few hundred years you would see how pretty much every tree would have its own particular human use.

There was a long period of time when trees weren’t cut down by humans; instead we only cut branches a process called pollarding. Pollarding was used across Britain and Europe to collect tree fodder for animals in the winter months. It offered our ancestors another option, if the harvest of conventional hay was poor or if there was a summer drought then you could always rely on tree foliage to top up your winter feed.

Animals feeding from trees

Animals and tree branches

This relationship with working trees is deeply ingrained in our history. Take holly and ivy. holly and ivy were a treasured type of winter feed; during the Medieval era they were carefully protected. Back then, on the Kings land, only two things were guarded whatever the cost: vert and venison, with vert referring to holly and ivy.

The King wasn’t the only one to treasure our fine shrubbery. If you go to Lancashire or Yorkshire you’ll find that lots of village names that begin with ‘Hollin’, meaning an ‘orchard’ of holly. I use the word ‘orchard’ because, like orchards of fruit trees today, they were working for a living.

What happened? Why aren’t our fields still full of working trees? Well, working trees received their biggest blow with the introduction of the turnip. These fast growing taproots gave farmers a new, quick and inexpensive way to feed their livestock over winter. After the Second World War, trees on farms were increasingly seen as an unwanted obstacle to mass mechanisation and the dominance of monoculture.

A Revival?

We can, and are still, working with trees. Some nations are better at this than others. In France they’ve been reviving the practice over the past decades – with farmers using the woodchip as an antibacterial bedding material for livestock and, as the nutritious benefits have become more acknowledged, a source of feed for livestock.  

We may be a little behind. But even in the UK we’re seeing the first shoots of mainstream interest in bringing trees back to farms. In the last few years we’ve seen agroforestry growing in popularity. I call this proven sustainable system because it is a brilliant way for farmers to grow another crop from the same land – whether that is fruit, nuts or woodchip. Planting trees on farms doesn’t only create habitats for bees and birds above ground. It’s also doing an incredibly complex job of breaking down minerals and refreshing soil which has suffered the effects of intensive agriculture underground.

As we move further into the 21st century we need to make good use of our ancestor’s knowledge and embrace trees on farms for the unique variety they bring to agriculture.

ancient tree and painting 

Trees and Biodiversity

When you get involved with old trees you've got to remember that a lot of the hard work is going on underground. It's not just the tree roots, but also the microbial fungi and this incredible community that lives with it. I see ancient trees as our rainforest, and not only are they nurturing precious life above soil, like the birds and the bees, but underneath ground they're so vital for biological continuity. What is biological continuity? Attached to massive ancient trees roots are mycorrhizal fungi, almost invisible threads that look like cotton. These threads spread out into the soil and produce chemicals which dissolve down particles in the soil, breaking them into minerals nutrients and allowing them to be absorbed by the tree.     

Trees and soil

Who we are?

The Soil Association is a charity looking to change the way we eat, farm and care for the health of our planet. As the first Future Farming Consultation Paper moves through parliament, we need your help to make and impact and put organic and sustainable farming at the heart of government policy for years to come.