For many years I have extolled the importance of our islands ancient trees and suggested that the UK’s single greatest obligation to European biodiversity is the recognition and conservation of our old trees. I add that because of their immense value to biodiversity. They are in fact Europe’s very own rainforest.
For many years we deferred from calling our oaks ‘English Oak’ because of the extent of their natural distribution across the rest of Europe. Yes, for me, it’s English oak! For nowhere outside the UK (in Europe) will you find the numbers and concentrations of our oaks of all ages from acorn to ancient tree. Some of our oaks are over 1000 years old and have provided an incredible biological continuity both above and below ground since perhaps only seven or eight generations after the ice age! What other organism can claim that?
Below ground this biodiversity includes the soil and the Mycorrhizal Fungi (the food gathers) associated with the tree roots and the other soil-inhabiting micro organisms are essential, in fact fundamental, to the health of our trees. Not only do they provide the tree’s requirements in minerals, micro nutrients and water but they are also the tree’s natural defence (together with their partners the dead plant matter decayers – the recyclers) against soil borne pathogens so prevalent today.
Our old trees are gene banks and survivors of the ravages of climate (such as droughts and even a mini ice age) as well as the constant presence of pests and diseases. They are also an important element in our history, our living heritage and cultural heritage. Obviously we must include our other working trees, our ancient apples, pears, plums and all the other fruit trees and shrubs. However in many cases the full value to science, and therefore mankind, of these old trees and their supporting soil as reservoirs of disease resistance has yet to be fully realised.
‘Science does not stand still’ and as a precautionary principle John Deakin, the Chief Forester at The Crown Estate at Windsor, has designated a forest soil reserve that one day can be useful to science as a benchmark in the continuing study of the complex relationship between our trees and their soil-inhabiting partners. After all, there is widespread support for the new marine reserves around our coasts so why not soil reserves? Obviously another positive step would include greater recognition and protection for our old trees.
Through the vast, diverse age range – ‘From Acorn to Ancient’ – the trees at Windsor tell us of the Estate’s continuing practice of planting young trees and caring for the ancients. Therefore after the incredible acorn year in 2011, it was decided to collect acorns from two oaks over 1000 years old and some other notable ancients. The acorns have been sown in a new organic nursery created between some mature oaks.
As oak is recognised as one of the most light-demanding trees the nursery is not placed under any of the trees crowns, but it is assumed that it is sufficiently close enough for the germinating seeds emerging roots to be colonised by essential mycorrhizal fungi attached to the surrounding oaks. The reasoning for this is that there are grave concerns and increasing awareness of the effects of soil and water borne pathogens. Therefore one could argue that ‘speed is of the essence’ when it comes to newly emerging tree roots being colonised naturally by mycorrhizal fungi which envelope the root like a glove and give it ‘Natural Biological Protection’.
Our old trees ‘On our own doorstep’ cross all boundaries of nations, class, religion, walks of life and age. They are ambassadors and catalysts for bringing likeminded caring people across the world together. The old Scottish retired Head Forester at Windsor (A Gentleman of the Forest) when he caught me planting a young oak said ‘Aye Ted–It’s a privilege to plant a Tree’.
A note from Ted Green M B E – ITF Vice President.