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Living Legends: Caring for old trees on farms

NFFN have teamed up with the Woodland Trust to champion farmers who are protecting ancient & veteran trees on their land.

If you took all the old trees growing on farms in the UK and put them in one place, you would create one of the most beautiful forests in the world. Ancient old oak, rowan, hawthorn, ash, field maple, hawthorn and birch stretching to the horizon.

Traditionally, trees on farms have been managed as an important resource for timber, fuel, fodder and other tree products and used to mark land boundaries. These long-established management practices, along with reduced competition from neighbouring trees, allowed many to become ancient and veteran, so farms are home to many of the UK’s older trees.

In recent years, there has been a welcome interest in tree planting on farms, creating habitat and a natural carbon store alongside farming operations. The Woodland Trust helps farmers do this in various ways, from creating areas of new woodland to agroforestry that integrates trees into farming systems. Here, we’re sharing some advice on caring for older trees on farms.

‘Trees outside woods’ (e.g. individual trees or small groups of trees) make up about 20% of Britain’s total tree canopy cover. Farmland covers about 70% of the land area, and rough estimations show that farmers care for around 15% of Britain’s tree canopy cover and an even higher percentage of our native tree cover. No one knows the figures for definite, but the care of these trees on farms, and the planting of new ones, is a considerable contribution to the country’s wildlife habitat, carbon storage and landscape character.

Old trees in the countryside are far from invincible, although their size can sometimes give that impression. The use of large, heavy machinery and operations close to trees and around the roots can end the life of old trees prematurely. Pests and diseases can rob landscapes of trees too. In many places, ash dieback is now having a starkly visible effect. There are still many farmers old enough to remember hedges and farms rich in grand old elm trees, now gone almost everywhere.

Why are ancient and veteran trees important on farms?

Ancient and veteran trees (AVTs) are a crucial part of a nature-friendly and productive landscape. They are existing carbon stores that will continue to capture carbon in wood and in the soil around them. They stabilise soil, and are homes for species that boost or provide important farm services. They add complexity to the farm, increasing the number and variety of nests or shelter for the natural enemies of pests and beneficial pollinators. Protection and care of AVTs could be also considered part of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. Taking care of these special trees is a win-win situation.

How to recognise ancient and veteran trees:

  • Veteran trees are mature trees that share many of the features of ancient trees. They are recognised by trunk hollows, cavities and rot holes, dead or broken branches and fungal fruiting bodies that indicate wood decay.
  • Ancient trees are also veteran trees but are the very oldest examples of their kind. Some species usually live longer than others, with birches reaching around one hundred years. Others, such as oaks and yew, top the age charts at over one thousand years. An ancient tree might be distinguished from a younger veteran by a low and squat shape, and a smaller and reduced crown. They often have very wide trunks compared with similar trees growing nearby.

Farmer Andrew Brown’s 180-year-old oak tree was hit by an Avro Lancaster Bomber on the 26 April 1945 during WW2 that went on to crash near Northampton, about 20 miles away.

Andrew says: “Ancient trees are an essential part of the ecosystem, supporting species from lichens and insects to birds and even some mammals. It is important to nurture and preserve them as part of our historic landscape.”


Cat Frampton has a 300-year old Badger Oak on her farm. It had been growing amid enormous lumps of granite and consequently had weak roots so when a storm hit it in the wrong direction,  it couldn’t withstand it. When it fell it uprooted 8ft boulders next to it. Cat left the tree alone as it had a root still attached and wasn’t taking up too much grazing space. Five years later, it is half dead but teaming with life, including woodpeckers and beetles. It has lichen and mosses that have lived on, it is full of fungi, and in places where its bark has peeled away, it shows a maze of insect holes and runs.

Cat says: “We have a very wooded farm & our really old trees are special. The old oaks have such a strong presence and they are massively beneficial to our land.From moths and tiny insects to owls and bats, our old oaks shelter and feed a lot creatures, many of whom are beneficial to the livestock, as the small birds pick flies off the cows to feed their young nesting in the branches. The cows eat the leaves from the lower branches, getting minerals bought up from deep in the soil by the trees’ extensive root system, and the tannins help to naturally worm the cows. As we go about our daily business, our old trees remind us that this is a long game – what we do now may have repercussions for years to come. Leaving a sapling to grow today may mean a big old oak in 400 years’ time. They help us see the bigger picture.”

What are the key things farmers can do to look after the old trees on their land?

Give ancient and veteran trees as much space as possible, above and below the ground

Allow the tree crown adequate spreading room. Limited activities should occur on the land surrounding ancient and veteran trees because damage to the roots and surrounding soil through compaction, cultivation and agricultural inputs can significantly reduce their lifespan. Try to leave a root protection area – a circular area around a tree with a radius that is fifteen times the diameter of its trunk (measured at 1.3 metres above the ground). If you can accommodate a further buffer zone beyond this root protection area, do so, as this can further reduce the amount of wind-blown applications or splashing near the tree.

Retain dead trees and decaying wood

Value and keep dead trees and wood wherever possible. Decaying wood supports specialist wildlife that needs it to survive and slowly recycling valuable minerals and other nutrients back to the soil. All forms and sizes are important; dead attached branches, fallen branches and trunks lying on the ground. Even standing dead trees are rare and precious habitats. If a tree must be cut down, for example, if there are serious safety concerns, it is rarely necessary to cut it at ground level. Instead, leave tall stumps that can continue to break down gradually. Leave fallen branches uncut and where they lie – a little untidiness here can be very beneficial. Alternatively, move them to convenient spots (mix between sunny or shady), or use them to protect trunks and roots from livestock.

Identify veteran trees of the future

Trees can live for hundreds of years but are easily lost. If a veteran tree falls or is felled, its special features will disappear from the area and cannot be replaced by young trees in the short term. A continuous succession of trees representing a variety of ages is critical. Is the next generation already growing nearby? Allow these mature or existing trees to become successor trees by giving plenty of space to their roots, trunk and crown. Record or mark these on a farm plan. Establish any new trees nearby, yet far enough away from existing veteran or ancient trees to avoid creating competition for light, water or nutrients as they mature. If planting a new generation, establish a mixture of native, locally-grown species, both in fields and in hedgerows, or even better, take advantage of genetics and allow the next generation to regenerate naturally. Include flowering trees and shrubs to provide pollen and nectar sources. Create new pollards from young trees, as this practice can deliver valuable products and increase the rate at which trunk hollows develop.

Good veteran tree care focuses on providing space, valuing decaying wood and looking to the future. The rooting area is protected from daily farming operations, vehicle access across tree roots is avoided, and farming materials are stored away from trees. Decaying wood is present on the ground, and a new generation of trees is already growing nearby.

Farms need trees of all ages growing to ensure succession and continuation of canopy cover. It is essential that farmers receive support for looking after the oldest trees – those trees that have retired from active service and just need a bit of space and time to grow old. Inch for inch, these old trees – veteran and ancient – represent incredible value for wildlife. They also provide a link to the past, both genetically and culturally, and there is still much to learn about the carbon storage in the soils beneath these trees.

In England, the new Environmental Land Management Scheme must treat old trees like valuable wildlife habitats and reward farmers for looking after them – in the same way, we do for ponds, wildflower strips, hedges, and other essential wildlife habitats on farms. If you agree that farmers should be supported to care for ancient and veteran trees and receive help to create veterans of the future, please consider supporting the Woodland Trust’s new Living Legends campaign, which is calling for this. You can also download the guidance the Trust has developed with the Ancient Tree Forum on caring for veteran trees on farms.

Article author, Louise Hackett, supports farmers with the management of ancient and veteran trees in the Sherwood Forest Treescape – an area where the Woodland Trust is testing and developing approaches to tree management on farms