Study suggests there are up to 2.1 million old and veteran trees in England

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There may be more than 2 million old and veteran trees in England, many times more than previously recorded, the researchers found.

Activists are calling on the government to give old trees the same protections as wildlife and old buildings.

A study by the University of Nottingham found that there could be anywhere from 1.7 to 2.1 million old and veteran trees in England, of which only 115,000 are recorded. Most of them are unlikely to be protected by any conservation method, policy or legislation, so it’s impossible to know how many are at risk.

Now, using work from the Woodland Trust, researchers have estimated where these trees could be. To create a map, the scientists used an old inventory of trees created by the trust and created several different mathematical models, called species distribution models, to predict where the trees might be.

Veteran trees at Wistman's Wood National Wildlife Refuge in Devon, England.

Many of the trees estimated in the study are likely not protected. Photography: Mike Read/Alamy

Some of these models used predictors, including distance from cities, distance from roads, and population density, as well as environmental factors, to identify places where ancient forests exist but were not identified.

Related: From ancient oaks to walking yews: the story of Britain’s great trees, forests and avenues

Volunteers were sent to random places on the map and asked to sample old-growth forests, and the models that most closely matched this random sampling were selected. Inaccessible sites contained 100% more trees than previously found, meaning areas across England are likely to have large numbers of old trees that have not been recorded as they have not been surveyed.

Dr Victoria Nolan, one of the lead researchers on the study, said: “The survey findings provide insight into the number of species and types of trees that are present in different areas of the country. They could also be used to calibrate the models and provide estimates of the total number of old and veteran trees across England.

“Based on the best performing distribution models, these estimates predict 2 million old and veteran trees, which is an incredible increase from what is currently recorded. It also suggests that there are a lot more records to be made, but having these more accurate forecast maps, targeted surveying will make it much easier to find them.”

To be classified as ancient, a tree must be exceptionally old for its species. For example, an oak is ancient when it reaches 400 years of age and is considered a veteran tree at 150. Birch trees, on the other hand, grow very quickly and reach ancient status at 150. Yew trees are not considered ancient until they are about 150 years old. of 800.

Characteristics of an ancient tree include a hollow trunk, other organisms such as fungi or plants in its structure, or dead wood in the canopy. The dead wood they contain is a very important source of habitat for wildlife. Many have irreplaceable historical or cultural value.

Despite their functions as carbon sinks and wildlife refuges, there is no protection for old-growth or old-growth forests unless other rare wildlife has been encountered, or if it is subject to a tree protection order or is located in a legally protected wildlife area. An estimated 20% of old and veteran trees are in these areas, so most do not have legal protection.

Wooded slopes at Padley Gorge in the Peak District national park, Derbyshire, England.

Despite trees’ functions as carbon sinks, there is no protection for old-growth forests unless they have been discovered to harbor rare wildlife. Photography: Lee Beel/Alamy

The Woodland Trust is asking the government to include such protections to cover all old trees in its new green book on nature recovery in England.

Related: Britain’s disappearing rainforests must be protected, activists say

Adam Cormack, Head of Campaign for the Woodland Trust, said: “It is remarkable that this research suggests that we have not yet found the majority of the UK’s ancient trees, the cathedrals of the natural world. They are out there somewhere – hidden in corners of fields, woods, hedges, even gardens and parks. Volunteers have done an incredible job of mapping thousands so far and this survey is the inspiration to redouble our efforts.

“But it’s also worrying because these trees don’t have the automatic legal protection that most of our wildlife and old buildings do. This is despite the fact that some are over 1,000 years old. These amazing trees are our heritage of history, and we should treat them like national treasures. We are calling on governments across the UK to better protect our oldest and most important trees and to do more to support the people who care for them.”

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