Ancient trees. Trees that have seen generations come and go. Trees that have stood through wars or are part of woodland that has stood for longer than memory knows. Ancient and veteran trees spark curiosity among almost anyone interested in trees – and while it’s certainly hugely impressive to think of a tree having leant shade to men and women 800 years ago or more, is age really the most important thing?

No, it’s not, according to Stuart Palmer, forestry adviser at the National Trust here in Cumbria. When we were with him last week, he said people always ask him about age, but for him, the age of the tree is probably the least important thing about it. “It’s how do you connect with it,” he reckons. “How big is it? How important is it in the landscape? What’s its history, what are its stories? What’s on it, what’s living with it? Whether it’s five hundred years old or three hundred years old or a hundred years old – a hundred year old birch is just as impressive as a five hundred year old oak.”

Stuart’s understanding of trees comes from decades of working closely with them and he tells us of the different strategy each species has for survival. A birch, for instance, will grow fast and put out many, many seeds at an early age, and its hundred years are filled with intense energy expenditure. An oak, on the other hand, takes life at a more leisurely pace. It may be decades before an oak puts out some acorns: its strategies for growth and reproduction are to play a long slow game.

glencoyne pine whorls

The Royal Forestry Society website gives guidance if you want to guess at the age of a tree. For instance, on a conifer you could count the whorls of branches and attribute a year for each whorl. Yet we can count 12-15 whorls on our Glencoyne Pine but its height of more than 30 metres suggests its many decades old.

For broadleaf trees such as oak, ash and sycamore, basing your calculations on an estimate of a growth of 1.5-2cm a year, by measuring the girth of a tree you can have a guess. You would have to allow a large margin for accuracy, however, as so many things can affect a tree’s expansion. Overly wet soil, for instance, may lead to root rot and compromise growth. Available light plays a part, and on some years, summer weather might have been abysmal and growth slow. Pests and other problems can interfere too.

Stuart told us about some pollarding work in Watendlath, Borrowdale. “The ash there don’t look impressively old but they are, unbelievably old.” One of the foretry workers laid a cut branch on the table and asked Stuart how old he thought it was. “I guessed at maybe thirty years old. I counted the rings – it was incredibly difficult to count them – and got to 75. And that was only the branch that had grown after pollarding. So we’d guess that it had last been pollarded 75 years ago and it was an old tree then. The tree itself is hollow, and struggling. The growth rates have been very slow but it’s managing to survive.”

When it comes to guesstimating the ages of the seven Long View trees, any measurements will have to be taken alongside the recollections of local people who know the trees and the land around them, and can recall them over the years. And while we didn’t choose The Long View trees because of their age (see post: How it all Started), we do marvel at the way they are thriving in challenging locations.  And maybe they are older than their stature suggests.
Stuart’s parting closing words on the subject of age were: “In fact, our oldest trees are often those that are out on their own.”

I left our meeting inspired: my poem is posted separately here: The age of trees.

fungi on tree trunk

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