After one of the UK’s most photographed trees, the so-called “Sycamore Gap” next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park was deliberately felled, there has been renewed interest in the protection of the country’s ancient trees.
Conservation charity The Woodland Trust is calling for all governments across the UK to enact legal protection for ancient trees. Three quarters of these trees are found outside legally protected wildlife sites. Meanwhile, more than 1,200 precious ancient woods are threatened by development; many are saved and protected by local communities and grassroots campaigns
The Woodland Trust launched a petition which has almost 60,000 signatures, calling for improved laws to keep our oldest trees safe. So far, better protection has been debated by the House of Lords and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Woods and Trees and Scottish planning policy has improved protection for ancient and veteran trees and ancient woods.
While ancient woodland now covers just 2.5 per cent of the UK, there are many landmark trees across the country that continue to thrive, from sprawling species that are hundreds of years old to conifers that are some of the tallest in Europe. Here’s where to see some of our national treasures.
The Flodden Tree, Scottish Borders
Just over the border from Northumberland’s fallen icon stands another historic sycamore. The Flodden Tree stands on the Hirsel Estate near Coldstream and was shortlisted for Scottish Tree of the Year in 2018. With a girth of 6.89m, the tree is reputed to have either been planted or been in existence at the time of the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the largest battle ever fought between the English and Scottish kingdoms.
Holly Tree, Scottish Borders
Another battle marker stands in the grounds of Floors Castle near Kelso. A holly tree near the banks of the River Tweed is said to mark the spot where King James II was killed by a cannon explosion during the siege of Roxburgh Castle – the ruins of which stand on the Floors estate – on 3 August 1460.
Survivor Tree, Scottish Borders
Native to Britain, rowan trees hold a certain mysticism. They were once planted by households to ward off witches and evil spirits, its wood used for divining rods and to prevent rheumatism.
They are native to cooler regions and are more common in the north and west of the UK, particularly in high-altitude locations such as the Carrifran Valley where Scotland’s Tree of the Year 2020, the “Survivor Tree” stands. Much like the Sycamore Gap tree, this rowan stands alone in a bare landscape as a symbol of hardiness. However, around 750,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted in the valley since 2000 as part of a restoration project.
Douglas fir, Inverness-shire
The emerald green, mossy Reelig Glen near Beauly is home to some of Britain’s tallest trees, notably a Douglas fir that was previously the tallest conifer in Europe. The Forestry Commission Scotland measured it in 2016 as standing at 66.4m, though they can grow up to 1m every four years.
Reelig Glen is also home to Britain’s tallest larch and tallest lime tree, both of which “thrive in the shelter of the steep sided gorge.” They may have been planted by Scottish explorer James Baillie Fraser (1783 – 1856) whose family owned the estate until 1949. Visitors can take in the majesty on a mile-long Tall Trees Walk alongside the gurgling Moniack burn.
Queen Elizabeth’s oak, London
This hollow trunk stands behind bars within Greenwich Park in south-east London. It was reputedly planted in the 12th century and has been hollow for hundreds of years, but died in the late 19th century, eventually collapsing in the 90s.
Stories link it to previous monarchs and also as a lock-up for park offenders, and an English Oak was planted alongside by the late Prince Philip on 3 December 1992.
Japanese Pagoda tree, London
This London landmark is one of Kew Gardens’ “Old Lions“. Planted in 1762, it was bought to England from China as a specimen by James Gordon and now stands almost horizontal, supported at its trunk by a small brick wall. The tree’s white summer flowers can be used to make a yellow fabric dye.
Kingley Vale, Sussex
Alongside Scots pine and juniper, yew is one of the three conifers native to Britain. They are one of the oldest living trees in northern Europe and the yews of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve near Chichester are among
the oldest living things in Britain. Some are thought to be more than 500 years old and stand near Bronze Age burial sites.
Wander past their gnarled trunks – which can measure 5m in girth – and sprawling, twisted branches as you listen out for woodpeckers.
Dark Hedges, Co Antrim
This much-photographed avenue of beech trees lines the approach to the Georgian Gracehill House. Planted by the Stuart family around 1775, they stand proud today and have been used as a filming location in Game of Thrones.
Bregagh Road is best visited in autumn either early in the morning as mist hangs low, or late afternoon when the setting sun casts its glow on their autumn foliage.
Belvoir oak, Co Down
This could be the oldest oak tree in Northern Ireland, thought to be around 500 years old. It’s located in Belvoir Park Forest near the south bank of the river Lagan on the southern outskirts of Belfast.
It’s on the shortlist for Tree of the Year 2023, which will be announced by The Woodland Trust on 19 October and has an impressive girth of 8.01 metres, with a fragmented and gnarly form.
Hollow oak, Neath Port Talbot
Within the grounds of Gnoll Country Park, this curiosity forms part of an arboretum created by the Mackworth family in the 19th century that also includes oaks, giant redwood, lime and sweet chestnuts.
The oak stands beside a fishpond, its core completely hollow since at least the 1950s and now fitted with supporting bars. Despite its curious cavity, the oak continues to produce a healthy crop of leaves and acorns each year.