Start of main content.

Celebrating our ancient trees

Did you know that the oldest tree in the UK is thought to be over 2,000 years old? And since trees can live for thousands and thousands of years, it might be even older than that. Can you imagine all the things that have happened while the tree has been alive? Romans would have built Hadrian’s Wall, London was built, and people went to space for the first time.

In the UK we’re lucky to have lots of ancient trees, and also lots of ancient woodland. The ancient trees are sometimes found in these woods, and sometimes elsewhere like Yew trees in church graveyards – and they’re often older than the churches themselves!

What is an ancient woodland?

Coppice woodland at Centurion’s Copse, Brading, Isle of Wight, May 2005. Shows bluebells (blue, Hyacinthoides non-scripta), hazel (trees, Corylus avellana) and ramsoms or wild garlic (white, Allium ursinum). CC Naturenet

Ancient woodland is defined as an area of wood or forest that has been around since 1600 – so that’s over 400 years. They may have started naturally, or they may have been planted or cultivated hundreds of years ago, but they are all special. Because they have been around so long, unique and complex ecosystems have evolved with many species of plant, fungi, animal and insect that are only found in them.

Why do they need to be protected?

There are several reasons. Firstly, because the ecosystems and the organisms that live there are often endangered; destroy their habitat and they will die off. Secondly, because these systems have taken so long to develop, they cannot be replaced. Once you destroy and ancient woodland, you can’t simply plant more trees elsewhere to bring it back.

And while forests and woods once covered the UK, today only 2.5% of the United Kingdom is covered by an ancient forest, so they are already threatened.

What kind of plants and animals can you spot in an ancient woodland?

Wood anemone or Anemone nemorosa is an indicator species for ancient woodland. CC Lilly M

If you’re visiting an ancient woodland, or if you’re wondering whether the woods near you are ancient, there are some species you can look out for that may provide some clues.

Firstly, the trees making up the woods will often be oak, sweet chestnut or beech. Certain lichen species that take years to grow may be found all over the trees and on fallen wood on the ground, so look out for barnacle and lungwort lichens. Spring is a good time to spot some of the other indicator species, such as bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone, primrose, Lilly of the valley and red campion.

What’s the most ancient tree in the UK?

The Fortingall Yew, thought to be the oldest tree in the UK. CC Paul Hermans

If you’re wondering about the oldest tree in the UK, then actually it’s not an ancient woodland you’ll be heading to. The Fortingale Yew tree in Perthshire, Scotland, stands in a churchyard. It’s at least 2,000 years old, though could be 3,000 years old, and in fact some people think it could even be 5,000 years old! But sadly there’s no way to tell since the only way to accurately date a tree is to count the tree rings.

Every year of a tree’s growth, it grows a little wider. If you take a slice through a tree, you can see these as tree rings; each ring represents one year of growth. But you’d have to cut the tree down – or wait for it to fall down – to do this and so no-ones going to do this to a healthy living tree! You can tell quite a lot from the tree rings, not just how old the tree is, but also what the weather was like – warm, sunny years mean plenty of growth and wide ring, but bad weather means slower growth and narrower rings.

A recently coppiced stool of Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Hampshire, England, 2005. Can you see the tree rings? CC Naturenet

Where to find ancient trees and ancient woodland

There are places to spot these beautiful, ancient organisms all around the country, and the Woodland Trust has a great guide to finding them, plus what to look for and how to help protect them. You can also check out its Ancient Tree Inventory which not only lists the ancient trees but also includes a form where you can nominate a tree that you think might be ancient.

You can also have a look at the Natural England map that shows the location of all the recorded Ancient Woodland across the UK.

More info and links


Share by email or online: