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Ancient and veteran trees

Veteran treeVeteran tree

Ten thousand oaks of 100 years old are not a substitute for one 500-year-old oak.
(Ecologist, Oliver Rackham.)  

In much of mainland Europe, you would be hard pushed to find a tree more than 200 years old, but in Britain we are fortunate to have many of Europe’s surviving ancient trees. Some might be as much as a thousand years old. 

Ancient trees are defined as those of a great age for the species. For a silver birch this would be at least 100 years but for an oak we’re talking 400 years, if not more – way beyond normal maturity. 

They typically have a large girth and, with great age, these beautiful old trees become ecosystems in their own right. Rare fungi feed on the dead wood and can help the tree by recycling nutrients back to it. Lichens and mosses grow on them, and bats use them for summer roosting and breeding sites. The trees are also a rich source of insect food and nesting sites for birds. Some species, such as the lesser spotted woodpecker, pied flycatcher and redstart, live predominantly in habitats with many old trees and decaying wood. 

A veteran tree on the other hand may not be quite as old as an ancient tree, but is usually just as interesting. Crevices or holes in the bark and trunk, dead wood in the canopy and high numbers of interdependent wildlife species are some of the features that lead to a tree being called veteran. 

You'll find ancient and veteran trees dotted all over the North York Moors. The southwest corner of the National Park in particular is a great place to see them – over half of the parkland at Duncombe Park became a National Nature Reserve in 1994 to protect the wildlife associated with the old trees there.

For more information, download our useful guide to ancient and veteran trees (pdf).