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Conservation charity adds 6000 trees to the things it looks after

Acorn Bank Dalston Oak ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

EUROPE’S largest conservation charity, the National Trust, looks after 20% of the Lake District for everyone to enjoy including 100 mountains, 24 lakes and tarns, 90 farms and nine visitor attractions.

Now they are adding 5,835 special trees to the list after a three year search of their land across Cumbria and Morecambe Bay.

The charity’s woodland rangers worked with Cumbrian tree consultants Kerry Milligan and David Preston to record trees that are very old (ancient), old (veteran), or important for social, historical and landscape reasons. The total also includes 149 champion trees, exceptional individuals listed on The Tree Register of the British Isles database.

The National Trust’s land and nature Manager John Pring explains what this means: “Trees are unique and irreplaceable and they are usually the oldest living thing in the landscape. Some on our list have witnessed Roman invasion, others are remnants of huge changes in land use. And all quietly get on with turning sunlight into energy, locking up carbon dioxide, providing shade for stock, protection for the soils and giving hundreds of insects, mammals, birds, fungi, mosses and lichens a home. Trees make us happy, bring perspective to our lives and we can feel deeply connected to them. So this is a big responsibility and a big number.

“We now have the location and condition of each tree so we can better look after them, succession plan and, most importantly, celebrate each as a living monument come mini nature reserve. It’s the nearest we can get to listed building status for trees” adds John Pring.

Kerry Milligan and David Preston provided specialist help on recognising ancient trees which can vary from species to species. They also had time to look for special trees in hard to reach places and to find ones that are easy to overlook – for instance within woodlands.

“In addition to a record for each tree and a traffic light care plan” continues John Pring, “we also know what lichens, ferns and other plants depend on them and we can focus our efforts on protecting them into the future.”

The oldest trees in the Trust’s Lake District collection are the Borrowdale yews, which William Wordsworth wrote a poem about. They are nearly 2,000 years old, although yews can live for 4,000 years. Another tree that is ancient for its species, and in the Trust’s care, is the 100 year old crab apple trees in Glencoyne Wood near Ullswater. The survey also found a high concentration of wood pasture in Ullswater, remnants of deer parks, doubling the number of trees the team thought they had. Much of the collection, including the most vulnerable of the Trust’s trees, are on tenant land and involve the charity working in partnership with their tenant farmers to look after them.

Included in the list of 5,835 trees are ones that people can discover on ranger and self-led walks at National Trust places. Some have incredible stories to tell about fashion, history and management practices, as John Pring explains: “The Skelghyll Grand fir near Ambleside and the magnificent Sitka spruce at Aira Force near Ullswater were planted as saplings by Victorians in their new gardens. These two are now national champions. The mighty sweet chestnuts at Sizergh Castle near Kendal are the result of a visit to Versailles by owner Cecilia Strickland in the late 18th century. And at Acorn Bank near Penrith, there’s a remnant, the Dalston oak, of the large oak forest that gave the property its name. In Borrowdale there’s evidence of trees which were repeatedly cut, hundreds of years ago, to provide food and fuel for people and animals out on the fells. If only trees could talk, what stories they would tell” says John.

Caring for these special trees sees National Trust rangers and forestry teams making regular tree checks which can lead to tasks such as tree surgery, to prevent limbs splitting, clearing out saplings to give older trees the space and light they need to grow. The teams also plan for the ancient trees of the future. John Pring says this takes on a whole new meaning when considering how many ranger careers it takes to see saplings, grow old.

Help with succession planning came in an unusual form for one of the Trust’s woodland rangers Maurice Pankhurst. Maurice was contacted by a visitor who said he had been successful in germinating some seeds from the ancient Borrowdale yew trees. Chris Cooper wanted to know if the Trust was interested in them as saplings to be planted out in the valley when they were big enough. Maurice said yes and Chris said he would call back in 10 years’ time. True to his word, Chris did just that.

This month (February) Chris delivered his last batch of 19 saplings, now over 2ft tall, and grown in his Nottingham garden. These descendants of some of the most ancient trees in Cumbria are planted and protected by wooden cages, funded by donors, and Chris will keep a close eye on them.

John Pring says: “There’s a lot of technical information about looking after old trees. I prefer to enjoy them for what they are, marvel at how they manage to get water to their trees tops or, how they simply hold all that weight. They are wonderful in so many ways and it’s easy to forget that many are much older than the buildings they stand next too. This survey means we have a permanent record and can focus our efforts on protecting them into the future and enjoying and marvelling at them.”

In addition to the 5,835 special trees, the National Trust looks after 3,500 ha of woodland in Cumbria.

For more information and ideas on enjoying special trees in the Trust’s care visit dedicated website page.

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