Does anything mark the change of seasons as ostentatiously as trees? Bursting with vivid greens and festooned with pale blossoms in spring, they’re transformed into deep shade-giving mantles in summer, and now they glow with fiery colour before reverting to their winter silhouettes. For some this seasonal cycle has happened hundreds of times since they began life as sprouting seeds.
Yew trees live longest in the UK, and there are a few contenders for the oldest tree award. Natural hollowing of their trunks makes ancient trees very difficult to date, but some experts estimate that a Scottish yew could be 5,000 years old. Oaks are known for their longevity too with a few reaching an age of 1,000. The Great Oak at Great Yeldham was considered ancient in 1777 and once had a girth of 30ft. It died of old age sometime after 1860 and is now a stump encased in concrete.
Trees, like all lifeforms, must come to an end, but the older a tree is, the greater its biodiversity. Very old trees are known as veterans when the slow process of decomposition sets in and attracts animals, plants and fungi. Ancient trees are even older, and often lose height but gain girth. With their deadwood, hollows, and rot holes, they are whole ecosystems, giving life to countless organisms.
With an age of about 800 years old, The Honywood Oak is ancient by anyone’s standards. It’s one of more than 300 oaks that were planted in the deer park at Marks Hall near Coggeshall, around the year 1200. Named after the estate’s earlier owners, this celebrated survivor now has a girth of around 27 feet. It’s little wonder that this ancient tree inspired The Oak Papers, a book by local author, James Canton.
Trees have been inspiring us recently too. Oak, ash, birch, field maple, yew and giant redwood, they’re all out there. We’ve been enjoying these venerable old-timers in and around Halstead and were quite disappointed that so few had been added to the Ancient Tree Inventory. It seemed only right to take matters in hand, so at 2m apart, and armed with a flexible tape measure and a bamboo pole, we began with two splendid oaks on Sloe Lane. One of them, a double-stemmed oak with a girth of 5 metres around its larger trunk, must be a good 300 years old. They’ve now been submitted for verification by the experts at the Woodland Trust – and we’re delighted to say that someone else had the same idea, because two more trees in Halstead were already awaiting verification, one of them Lucy’s Yew in St, Andrew’s Churchyard.
So we’re not the only people who value trees. We know that they’re good for the soul and for our physical health – why there’s even a health-centred project called NHS Forest. But trees are also good for community well-being, education (e.g. forest schools), and the environment. They help to tackle air quality by capturing carbon and converting it to carbohydrates. The Tree Charter supports the UK target to plant 11 million trees by 2022 and we’re delighted that Halstead Town Council signed up to adopt its aims in January.
When Covid-19 and all its social restrictions are at an end, will we care more for nature? Halstead 21st Century Group will try to champion our natural environment, and we’d like you to help us too. Would you like to help with a tree survey? Do you have a special interest in or knowledge about the natural environment that you’d like to contribute? Or perhaps you feel the urge to submit a blog or vlog about our green heritage? Please fill in our online form if you do.