Help for heroes:
looking after your
ancient & veteran trees

There are over 190,000 ancient and veteran trees on the Woodland Trust register. These venerable old Methuselahs require some specific care and understanding, but as nationally important assets, most have plenty more life in them than their appearance indicates. Here we offer some tips and ideas on how to look after them into their dotage


What is an ancient tree?

According to the National Trust “An ancient tree is one which is remarkably old for its species. The age varies from species to species, ranging from 150 years old for a birch to 800 or more for a yew. Its canopy is usually small, but the diameter of its trunk is very wide relative to other trees of the same species. It’s very likely to be hollow with missing branches.”

Veteran is a term describing a tree with features such as wounds or decay, and is a survivor. It may have features found on an ancient tree, but is not necessarily old.

None of these ‘war wounds’ indicate the ancient or veteran tree is about to die, in fact the tree may live on healthily for many decades and often centuries, particularly with sympathetic care.


Visible signs

You can identify a veteran tree on your land by signs of scarring or injury, like tears or fissures. The trunk is most likely hollow which does not lead to instability, as the tree will develop it’s own buttressing.

Branches may touch the ground, to help hold the tree up, like an old person’s stick, so don’t cut these back. The tree may also be ‘phoenixing’ –  regenerating from the lower branches.


How to care for a veteran

The Ancient Tree Forum have guidance on caring for ancient trees. The management of such trees is primarily root related, because most of the root mass is in the top 400-600mm of soils. A brief summary is:

  1. Give ancient and veteran trees as much space as possible, both above and below the ground. 
  1. Allow the tree crown adequate spreading room. Pruning can be stressful for older trees, and removing or damaging large limbs can imbalance them.
  1. Protect the ground surrounding a tree to prevent root and soil damage on a root protection area around a tree with a radius that is fifteen times the diameter of its trunk. You can heap brash, cuttings or other dead wood (but no diseased material) on an area that matches the footprint of the canopy.
  1. Retain dead branches and decaying leaves where they fall, they support specialist wildlife  the tree needs to survive, and also slowly recycles valuable minerals and other nutrients back to the soil – the trees ‘pension fund’.
  1. If a tree must be cut down, it is rarely necessary to cut it at ground level. Instead, leave tall stumps that can continue to break down gradually. 
  1. Establish any new trees well away from existing veteran or ancient trees to avoid creating competition for light, water or nutrients.


The Woodland Trust also have a guide to caring for ancient and veteran trees on farms.


What else can you do?

If you have one or more veteran trees consider recording them on the Woodland Trust register. Grow the seeds of our veterans, as they have the genetics to cope with many challenges, such as climate and disease.

Keep and eye on younger trees as indicators for signs of the more than 50 pests and diseases currently threatening UK trees, and try to protect your veterans.


How can AF help?

As always Members can rely on AF to supply machinery and equipment, fencing, soil nutrients and PPE to help you look after your veteran and ancient trees.

Save money. Save time.