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  • Overview

    What are ancient and veteran trees?

    Ancient trees are veteran trees, but not all veteran trees are old enough to be ancient.

    Veteran trees are survivors that have developed some features found on ancient trees but they are usually only in their second stage of life. 

    An ancient tree is one that has passed beyond maturity and is old in comparison with other trees of the same species, for example an oak tree is ancient when it reaches 400 years of age (it is considered a veteran tree at 150 years of age). Yew trees however are not considered ancient until they are about 8,000 years old. An ancient tree will probably have a very wide trunk and it is likely that it will be hollow. This is not necessarily the sign of a dead tree, it may stay alive and healthy for many years to come. 

    According to the Woodland Trust, ancient and veteran trees are rich reservoirs of biodiversity and cultural icons. Organisms such as fungi or plants will be growing in its structure or it might have dead wood in its canopy. The dead wood they contain is a very important source of habitat for wildlife.

    There has been a significant loss of these trees because of the disappearance or neglect of commons, traditional orchards and parklands and the removal of hedgerows. There appears to be a growing imbalance between the loss of mature and ancient open-crowned trees and the next generation of new trees to replace them.

    What is ancient woodland?

    Ancient woodland is defined as an area of land where there has been a continuous cover of trees since 1600 and currently it makes up only 2% of British woodland. Ancient woodlands are rich in biodiversity – as much as a tropical rainforest. They are relatively undisturbed by human development and as a result they contain unique and complex communities of plants, fungi, insects and other micro-organisms.

    Additional protection 

    In October 2021 the Government accepted the need to improve the protection of England’s ancient woods and trees and has committed to a number of measures to start addressing the issue.

    The Government has announced a review of the National Planning Policy Framework and strengthening the wording on ancient woodland. This should help protect ancient woodland and ancient trees in England.

    In January 2022 the Government published guidance on how to assess a planning application when there are ancient woodlands, trees or veteran trees on a proposed development site. 

    This guidance states that when making planning decisions the following should be considered:

    -    Conserving and enhancing biodiversity; and
    -    Avoiding and reducing the level of impact of the proposed development on ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees. 

    Buffer zones can be considered as a mitigation measure to buffer between the ancient woodland or ancient trees and the development. The size of the buffer zone will depend on various specific factors of the development and the land.  

    Compensation measures, which are a last resort, include:

    -    creating new native woodland or wood pasture and allow for natural regeneration
    -    improving the condition of the woodland
    -    removal of invasive species
    -    restoring or managing other ancient woodland, including plantations on ancient woodland sites, wood pasture and parkland
    -    connecting woodland and ancient and veteran trees separated by development with green bridges, tunnels or hedgerows
    -    producing long-term management plans for new woodland and ancient woodland - including deer management
    -    managing ancient and veteran trees to improve their condition
    -    planting or protecting individual trees that could become veteran and ancient trees in future

    The Government has also updated the Keepers of Time policy which is a policy that outlines the value of England’s ancient and native woodlands and ancient and veteran trees. It states the Government’s commitment to evaluating the threats facing these habitats and sets out England’s updated principles and objectives to protect and improve these habitats for future generations.

    This policy provides an overarching statement for decision makers to protect and improve ancient and native woodland and ancient and veteran trees which will be delivered through other current and future policy.

    Defra have refreshed the whole policy to reflect the importance of these trees and some key updates include the following:

    -    introducing a hierarchy of value to illustrate the different values associated with ancient and native woodland and ancient and veteran trees
    -    refreshing the policy principles and strategic objectives including greater reference to resilience from climate change, pests and disease to ensure these habitats are protected from these threats in future
    -    including greater reference to ancient and veteran trees and ancient wood pasture and parkland. This highlights their importance as irreplaceable habitat alongside ancient semi-natural woodland and plantations on ancient woodland sites
    -    introducing a new category of Long Established Woodland - woodland that has been present since 1893 - recognising their important ecological and societal value. We will consult on the protections these woodlands are afforded in the planning system.

    There is also a series of actions that government is taking to better protect and improve our ancient and native woodlands and trees over the coming years.

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