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veteran trees

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Birthday Tour (Part 3): Loch Tay & the Ardeonaig Sycamore - Killin

…Continuing from Part Two, in which I visited the Glen Lyon Ash.

I don’t think I have ever seen Loch Tay looking so beautiful as it appeared on my 27th birthday – the whole scene was absolutely breath-taking. This is the view west towards the Killin end of the loch…

…and this is the view east. The town of Kenmore (which I had just driven through on my way from Fearnan) can be made out at the point where the River Tay, the longest river in Scotland, exits the loch en route to Perth and Dundee.

Blue skies, snowy mountains, and reflections in a still loch… lovely!

This monster sycamore grows close to the hamlet of Ardeonaig, beside the road which runs just to the south of Loch Tay along its full length between Killin and Kenmore. I’m calling it the Ardeonaig Sycamore, although a more fitting (but probably misleading) name may be the Ardeonaig Plane Tree, as that was the common name for Acer pseudoplatanus once in common usage in Scotland. I discovered this tree last June, being immediately struck by its immense size as I walked by on the Rob Roy Way with a couple of friends (although I had driven along this road at least a couple of times previously without spotting it).

The trunk – and these photos don’t do it justice – really is enormous. It’s just a solid wall of wood. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a measuring tape with me and so can’t provide an accurate size. As you can see, before long the trunk branches into three major stems. Each one would be a respectable sycamore on its own!

When the trunk is examined from the lane, as in the above photo, or when the whole tree is admired from down the lane in either direction, the Ardeonaig Sycamore appears to be in exceptional health. The crown is full and healthy and the stem is flawless – for a tree of such outstanding stature, the expected depredations of age are surprisingly absent.

However… This time I climbed up the little banking / decrepit wall to get a look at the back side of the tree, only to be equally surprised at the amount of decay visible back there! The back half of the tree tells a completely different story to the front half. It appears as though the Ardeonaig Sycamore once had four massive stems, but at some point the back stem broke off completely, probably falling harmlessly into the field behind. In the photograph above, taken looking up at one of the remaining stems, the bottom half of the picture is almost all decaying wood and the associated new growth (the fourth wall of CODIT). The presence of this significant amount of decayed wood right at the base of this huge stem has worrying implications for the tree. I cannot envisage this stem remaining upright for long. In fact, with this amount of decay where all three major stems join the main bole, I would say that in all likelihood this tree is close to disintegrating, with one, two, or all three of the remaining stems falling outwards.

This photograph of the eastern side of the tree shows part of the old wound created when the fourth stem snapped out. Presumably decay was already present to cause that stem to fall, unless it was broken by entirely mechanical forces; however, a wound of this size has undoubtedly promoted further decay, and now the enormous bole is actually mostly hollow at ground level. This is a massive shame. When I came across the Ardeonaig Sycamore last year I thought I had discovered something really special: an enormous veteran tree enjoying the good health of youth. Now I know that it was only putting on a brave face.

And here is one more view of Loch Tay – I can’t resist!

Having left behind the Ardeonaig Sycamore (and Glen Lyon Ash and Fortingall Yew), I made my way to Killin and stopped for refreshment at the Falls of Dochart Inn. The Falls themselves were in low flow and very tame. Unfortunately, before long I had to tear myself away from this enchanting part of the country and make a start on the drive back to Edinburgh… Still, I trust it shan’t be too long before I’m back up at Loch Tay. I am well and truly under its spell!


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Coming soon: a long-awaited update on the Set A grey alders…


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Birthday Tour (Part 2): the Glen Lyon Ash – Loch Tay

…Continuing from Part One, in which I visited the Fortingall Yew.

Snow-capped Creag Roro (left) and the summit of An Stùc (1,118 m high) seen from Glen Lyon. Out of shot further right, the summit of Ben Lawers could also be seen - my third Munro, which I climbed in 2008.

Leaving Bridge of Balgie I retraced my route a little way until I came upon the Glen Lyon Ash, which I’d already driven past in the opposite direction. I would have stopped the first time but I knew that the Ben Lawers pass, the mountain road between Bridge of Balgie and Loch Tay, was blocked with snow and impassable by car (I’d walked up from the Loch Tay side as far as the Lawers Dam with friends a few days before and it was definitely blocked!). This meant Glen Lyon was effectively a giant cul-de-sac, so I’d have to backtrack as far as Fortingall to continue my tour.

The Glen Lyon Ash.

In the summer of 2008 I stayed with my parents for a week at Pubil, an absolutely tiny settlement at the far end of Glen Lyon. One day we were driving down the road when I noticed an ash tree of exceptional girth. I knew it was something special and had to get out of the car to have a look and take some photographs, which you can see in this vintage Treeblog post. That was the first I knew of the Glen Lyon Ash.

This Highland Perthshire website labels it the greatest-girthed ash (Fraxinus excelsior) recorded in Scotland, although it isn’t mentioned in my Tree Register Handbook. I wish I’d taken a tape measure along to see how it compares with the recognised champions. According to Highland Perthshire, “Close to the ash tree there is an ancient cross carved on a stone by the road. This is ‘St Adamnan’s Cross’ [shown on the OS map] and nearby is a stone with a deep hole where, so the legend goes, the saint banished the plague from the glen.” As if I needed an excuse to go back again!

The Ash grows but a field from the River Lyon. Here’s the view across the river and through the trees to Creag Roro and the summits of An Stùc and Ben Lawers.

The Glen Lyon Ash does get a mention in a Forestry Commission document titled Scotland’s Trees, Woods and Forests (available to download as a .pdf): “The Glen Lyon Ash can be found midway up this beautiful Perthshire glen. Ash trees are not noted for their longevity, but this tree is the exception. Thought to be 400 – 500 years old, this ash was once more than 100 feet high. It has recently been cut back to produce new growth, which should see it survive for another century or two.” You know, I would kill to see a photograph of this ash standing proud at its full height. The tree is also name-checked by the Woodland Trust’s Tree Disease website.

The Glen Lyon Ash seen with more of its surroundings. We’re facing north here, with our backs to the river.

You can clearly see that our ash was once a much taller tree. Its ‘pollarding’ was severe, but the Ash today is flourishing and it has already established a fine new crown. I hope the wood-rotting fungi take it easy on the bole and roots so the tree can live out the FC’s optimistic prediction of another century or two, but there are dark clouds on the horizon in the form of Chalara fraxinea - the dreaded ash dieback that has run rampant across Europe.

Anyway, after tearing myself away from this awesome veteran I made my way back down Glen Lyon to Fortingall, then hung a right to Fearnan… and Loch Tay!


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Continue to Birthday Tour (Part 3): Loch Tay & the Ardeonaig Sycamore - Killin.


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Birthday Tour (Part 1): Loch Rannoch - the Fortingall Yew – Bridge of Balgie

I woke up in a tent on my 27th birthday. It was early April, I had slept at the Forestry Commission’s campsite in Rannoch Forest, and it was as perfect a spring day as ever there was. I hatched a plan to photograph three big trees in the vicinity of Loch Tay while taking a motor tour through this part of the Highlands like a tourist of old: the Fortingall Yew, the Glen Lyon Ash, and a monster sycamore near Ardeonaig.

My campsite was just a short distance from both Loch Rannoch and the Black Wood of Rannoch, a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest, through which I’d walked the previous day.

Driving east along the road that follows the shore of the loch I passed the wee village of Kinloch Rannoch and soon met with the singular sight of a very shiny, snowbound Schiehallion. I climbed this mountain in November 2011 – my fifth Munro! – when I was lucky enough to see a faint Brocken spectre with double glory.

Following the Schiehallion road brought me up to Loch Kinardochy, which in contrast to the warmth of the day was still half frozen over. Back in the car I took the road south before turning right at Coshieville to follow the River Lyon upstream to Fortingall.

This is Fortingall parish church with the famous Fortingall Yew on the left. I’ve visited the yew five or six times over the last half-decade, but I’m now ashamed to admit that I never paid the church or churchyard any attention. Researching the church to say a little about it for these pictures has made me realise what I’ve been missing out on - antiquities that were right under my very nose half a dozen times! I only had eyes for the old tree, but my ignorance is inexcusable over so many visits… I must make amends on the next one.

The present church was built about 1900 on the site of its pre-Reformation predecessor. Three photographs from 1884, showing this earlier church and the yew (with a much smaller crown than today), can be found on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s Canmore website.

According to this page on Undiscovered Scotland, the site may have been occupied by a monastery before the 1100s. Gravestones dating back to the 7th century, a stone font from around 700, and fragments of three Celtic crosses dating from around 800 were all found when the previous church was demolished in 1901. A 7th-century bronze-plated iron hand-bell is also on display within the church. As Undiscovered Scotland say, “Fortingall appears to have been an important Christian centre from a very early date.”

Today the Fortingall Yew is enclosed by a sturdy stone wall with sections of iron railings to allow a glimpse of the inhabitant’s trunks; only the healthy crown can be seen from farther back, a golden-green cloud resting upon a plinth. Peering between the railings, the uninformed would be forgiven for believing that they were looking at a pair of quite unremarkable trees. In fact these are but two fragments of a once immense trunk of almost unbelievable proportions, but being fully shrouded in healthy bark and showing no sign of decay, they could pass unrecognised as two yews of far less ancient provenance. The truth is nothing short of mind-blowing!

The Fortingall Yew is one of the oldest known trees in Europe. Allen Meredith (whose estimates according to The Tree Register Handbook “are as well-informed as anyone’s”) has suggested it could be as old as 5,000 years (along with the yews at Discoed in Powys and Llangernyw in Conwy), which is certainly something to think about. But what I find truly incredible is the gargantuan size it once reached. Forget the Yew as it stands today, so small, so utterly destroyed by ‘tourists’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and try to wrap your mind around this: in the mid-1700s the Fortingall Yew had a girth of 56 and a half feet (17.2 m): a diameter of 5.5 metres (18 ft)! Consider that the thickest tree in Britain today is probably the Marton Oak with a dbh of 446 cm when measured around the three remaining sections of its trunk (although there are giant sequoias 7 m thick where their flared boles meet the ground). A five-and-a-half metre thick yew is phenomenal!

So how did such an enormous and enormously important tree end up looking like two smallish trees? I’ll let four old books tell that sorry tale (forgive a touch of overlap).

This sketch of the Fortingall Yew is taken from Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland; 1769, first published in 1771. The accompanying description runs: “A View of the gigantic Yew-Tree in Fortingal Church-Yard. The middle part is now decayed to the ground; but within memory was united to the height of three feet: Captain Campbell of Glen-Lion having assured me that when a boy he has often climbed over, or rode on the then connecting part.

In this book Pennant describes his visit to Fortingal on the 31st of July, 1769:

Rode to Glen-lion; went by the side of the river* that gives name to it. It has now lost its antient title of Duie, or Black, given it on account of a great battle between the Mackays and the Macgregors; after which, the conquerors are said to have stained the water with red, by washing in it their bloody swords and spears. On the right is a rocky hill, called Shi-hallen, or the Paps. Enter Glen-lion through a strait pass: the vale is narrow, but fertile; the banks of the river steep, rocky, and wooded; through which appear the rapid water of the Lion. On the north is a round fortress, on the top of the hill; to which, in old times, the natives retreated, on any invasion. A little farther, on a plain, is a small Roman camp†, called by the Highlanders Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers: themselves they style Na-fian, or descendents of Fingal. In Fortingal church are the remains of a prodigious yew-tree, whose ruins measured fifty-six feet and a half in circumference.

* This river freezes; but the Tay, which receives it, never does.
† It possibly might have been made during the expedition of Severus, who penetrated to the extremity of this island: it was the most northern work of the Romans I had any intelligence of.

Walter Johnson’s Byways in British Archaeology, first published in 1912, also mentions the Fortingall Yew. Johnson includes Pennant’s 1769 measurement (though mistakenly describing it as having been recorded “a few years later”, an error repeated from Loudon as you shall soon see) alongside another measurement taken in 1769 by Barrington, a judge – unfortunately there is a four-and-a-half foot discrepancy, perhaps accounted for by the measurements having been taken at different heights. Johnson writes:

From a long descriptive list of aged yew trees, slowly accumulated in a note-book, a few examples only need be extracted. At the head, in regard to antiquity, stands probably the yew in the graveyard of Fortingal (Fortingale, or erroneously, Fotheringhall), Perthshire. Sir R. Christison estimated this tree to be 3000 years old, and deemed it “the most venerable specimen of living European vegetation3.” De Candolle’s determination was about the same as Christison’s. The hollow stump, which has been carefully railed in, is now the merest wreckage. The Fortingal yew was measured by Daines Barrington in 1769, when the circumference was set down as 52 feet1. Pennant, a few years later, gave the result as 56½ feet… It is worthy of notice that a very old ecclesiastical establishment once existed near the Fortingal yew3. Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 18374; beyond this we have to rely on the figures quoted, and on oral tradition.

Competing with the Fortingal yew for the premier position, there formerly existed that of Brabourne, in Kent. It was alluded to by Evelyn in his Discourse on Forest Trees (1664), as already “supperannuated,” and it disappeared about a century ago5. De Candolle put its age at more than 3000 years6, and while this was doubtless an over-estimate, yet, if the recorded circumference, 59 feet7, be correctly stated, the tree was actually more ancient than its Scottish rival.

A third claimant, from Hensor (Bucks), must be introduced with a wavering pen. Its circumference, according to Mr J. R. Jackson, of Kew, was 81 feet8, hence, if this measurement be accurate, the yews already mentioned are hopelessly out-ranged, for here we should have a tree 2000 years old. Unfortunately, this yew no longer remains to tell its own story, or to allow the measurement to be checked.

3 Life of Sir R. Christison, II. p. 264. Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.

1 Philosoph. Trans. 1770, LIX. P. 37.
3 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 477.
4 J. C. Loudon, Arboretum Britannicum, IV. p. 2079.
5 Murray, Handbook for Kent, 5th edition, 1892, p. 37.
6 Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.
7 Handbook for Kent, l.c., Black’s Kent, p. 143.
8 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 376.

So there once existed an even larger yew than the one at Fortingall! Later in his book, Johnson touches on one of the reasons for our yew’s present diminished state:

The Fortingal yew had its career shortened by the lighting of Beltane fires against its trunk1. The origin of Beltane fires is on all hands admitted to be at least pre-Roman. Another illuminating fact is that when this aged tree had become separated into two portions, funeral processions were accustomed to pass between the limbs2.

1 Naturalists’ Journal, 1895, p. 99.
2 Nat. Jour., l.c.; J. G. Strutt, Sylva Britannica, 1826, p. 28. Strutt gives a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew.

Jacob George Strutt does indeed give “a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew”. Here it is, taken from his Sylva Britannica; or Portraits of Forest Trees, first published in 1822 (an expanded edition followed in 1830). It is a far more life-like representation than the sketch made by Pennant in 1769, and I think we can safely consider it a fairly accurate likeness of the tree as it was in the 1820s.

Strutt provides us with an updated description of the yew:

THE FORTINGAL YEW is one of the largest and oldest trees in Scotland: it stands in the Church-yard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp; a wild romantic district lying in the heart of the Grampian Mountains, comprehending Glenlyon and Rannoch, abounding in lakes, rivers, and woods, and formerly inhabited by that lawless tribe of freebooters, who, setting the civil power at defiance in the intricacy of their fastnesses, laid all the surrounding country under that species of contribution so well known at the time it was exacted, by the name of Blackmail.

This prodigious tree was measured by the Hon. Judge Barrington, before the year 1770, and is stated by him to have been at that time fifty-two feet in circumference; but Pennant describes it as measuring fifty-six feet and a half. The same elegant tourist also speaks of it as having formerly been united to the height of three feet; Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, having assured him that when a boy, he had climbed over the connecting part. It is now however decayed to the ground, and completely divided into two distinct stems, between which the funeral processions were formerly accustomed to pass. It is impossible to ascertain its age; but judging from its present state and appearance, it is not too much to suppose that its date is contemporary with that of Fingal himself, whose descendants the Highlanders in the vicinity are fond of styling themselves.

Johnson, in his Byways in British Archaeology, also wrote that “Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 1837”. Here is it, taken from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, which was originally issued in sixty-three monthly parts from January 1835 until July 1838. Loudon’s illustration matches up nicely with Strutt’s.

Loudon gives our best insight yet into the appalling fate of the Yew:

The Fortingal Yew (fig. 1989) stands in the churchyard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp, lying in the wild romantic district at the entrance to Glen Lyon, in Perthshire. Its age is unknown, but it has long been a mere shell, forming an arch, through which the funeral processions of the highlanders were accustomed to pass. It was first described in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. lix.), in 1769, by the Honourable Daines Barrington, who found it 52 ft. in circumference; and some years afterwards, by Mr. Pennant, when the circumference had increased to 56 ft. 6 in. Dr. Neill visited the tree in July, 1833; and a notice of it by him will be found in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for that year, from which we make the following extract; premising that, when Daines Barrington measured the tree, he found one side of the trunk a mere shell of bark, all the interior having decayed. “Considerable spoliations,” Dr. Neill observes, “have evidently been committed on the tree since 1769; large arms have been removed, and masses of the trunk itself carried off by the country people, with the view of forming quechs, or drinking-cups, and other relics, which visitors were in the habit of purchasing. What still exists of the trunk now (1833) presents the appearance of a semicircular wall, exclusive of the remains of some decayed portions of it, which scarcely rise above the ground. Great quantities of new spray have issued from the firmer parts of the bark, and a few young branches spring upwards to the height, perhaps, of 30 ft. The side of the trunk now existing gives a diameter of more than 15 ft., so that it is easy to conceive that the circumference of the bole, when entire, should have exceeded 50 ft. Happily, further depredations have been prevented by means of an iron rail, which now surrounds the sacred spot; and this venerable yew, which, in all probability, was a flourishing tree at the commencement of the Christian era, may yet survive for centuries to come.”

This is the larger of the two fragments of trunk still surviving today.

According to Undiscovered Scotland, a wall was first built around the Fortingall Yew in 1785, “though as already noted this seems to have done little to prevent further damage. The wall was rebuilt with gaps for viewing protected by railings in 1842…” This protective enclosure still surrounds the tree, and without it I sincerely doubt that there would be anything left of the yew today. Fortunately, the regenerative abilities of the ‘immortal’ yew have allowed the pathetic remains of this once-gargantuan tree to flourish within their sanctuary, and today they could pass as two healthy but entirely separate trees, five metres apart. A ring of wooden pegs on the ground marking out the extent of the old trunk connect the two fragments, and the twin crowns blend together as one.

This is an old postcard of the Yew and the church from my collection. I’m not sure of the date it was taken. It is unused postally, which doesn’t give any clues, but the church is clearly the one built after 1900. The Fortingall Yew itself had a much smaller crown then, when its previous appalling treatment was a less distant memory. The gravestones are our best bet at fixing a date for this photograph. The bright white one on the right must have been erected only recently here: in my present-day photo below, it has been discoloured by the passage of time. There are other changes to the graves too.

A familiar scene, April 2013.

…So after bidding the yew a fond farewell I took the picturesque Glen Lyon road as far as the Bridge of Balgie, where I’d hoped to enjoy a birthday scone. Unfortunately, as I had very little cash on me and the wee post office / tearoom didn’t accept card payments… I had to settle for a tin of Irn Bru and a Double Decker instead!


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Continue to Birthday Tour (Part 2): the Glen Lyon ash - Loch Tay.


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





The Oak at the Gate of the Dead

The Oak at the Gate of the Dead (a.k.a. the Crogen Oak).

Once I’d seen all there was to see of the uprooted Pontfadog Oak, I got back in the car and headed for home. But only a couple of miles down the road I pulled over to visit two more giant oaks: the Oak at the Gate of the Dead and the Duelling Oak. Both of these veterans grow within a stone’s throw of one another (and right close to the Wales-England border), beside the road linking Pontfadog with Chirk.

The massive girth of the Oak at the Gate of the Dead.

The Oak at the Gate of the Dead (Derwen Adwy’r Meirwon in Welsh) is famous, at least locally, for growing at the Pass of the Graves (Adwy’r Beddau). This is thought to be the place where in 1165, during the Battle of Crogen, the forces of Henry II of England were ambushed by the Welsh under Owain Gwynedd. The battle is described in Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Wales, published in 1778:

Offa’s ditch [Offa’s Dyke]… decends to the Ceiriog, and thence to Glyn, where there is a large breach, supposed to be the place of interment of the English who fell in the battle of Crogen, hereafter to be mentioned…

In this deep valley [of Ceiriog], which winds along the foot of the vast Berwyn mountains, was a bloody conflict between part of the forces of Henry II, and the Welsh, in 1165. Henry had determined once more to attempt the subjection of Wales, and to revenge the ravages carried through the borders by its gallant prince Owen Gwynedd; for that end, he assembled a vast army at Oswestry. Owen, on the contrary, collected all his chieftains, with their dependents, at Corwen. The king, hearing that his antagonist was so near, resolved to bring the matter to a speedy decision. He marched towards him; and in this valley, finding himself intangled in impenetrable woods, and recollecting his ill-fortune among the forests of Eula, directed his vanguard to make the passage clear, by cutting down the trees, in order to secure himself from ambuscade. The pikemen, and flower of his army, were posted to cover the workmen. The spirit of the common soldiers of the Welsh army grew indignant at this attempt; and, without the knowledge of their officers, fell with unspeakable fury on these troops. The contest was violent; numbers of brave men perished; in the end, the Welsh retired to Corwen. Henry gained the summit of the Berwyn; but was so distressed by dreadful rains, and by the activity and prudence of Owen, who cut him off from all supplies, that he was obliged to return ingloriously, with great loss of men and equipage.

This conflict is sometimes called the battle of Corwen; but with more propriety that of Crogen: for it happened beneath Castelh Crogen, the present Chirk castle; and the place is still called Adey’r Beddau, or the pass of the graves of the men who were slain here.

Pennant makes no mention of a large oak. Can we therefore infer, perhaps, that 250 years ago the Oak at the Gate of the Dead wasn’t significantly large or famous? ‘According to legend’, before the Battle of Crogen Owain Gwynedd rallied his troops beneath none other than the Pontfadog Oak… Would that have been at all a significant tree 850 years ago? Almost certainly not, I think it’s safe to say.

According to its page on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt site, the Oak at the Gate of the Dead is a pedunculate or English oak (Quercus robur) that has a girth of 9.6 m (31 ft 6 in) at a height of 1.5 m – which equates to a dbh of 3.1 m (10 ft 2 in). By comparison, the Pontfadog Oak was listed by the Tree Register as having a dbh in 1999 of 409 cm (13 ft 5 in): a whole metre thicker! That isn’t to claim that the Oak at the Gate of the Dead is a small tree though – far from it.

Unfortunately the Oak at the Gate of the Dead split in half in January 2010. This YouTube video, by Rob McBride, tree hunter, records a visit he made to the tree just days before its collapse. In this Flickr collection, he has a photo showing the tree pre-collapse in October 2009 and another from December 2006 in which the large split in the trunk is obvious – a clear signal of impending collapse. It goes without saying that I wish I could have seen the tree in person while it was still intact.

Small Ganoderma bracket growing on the Oak at the Gate of the Dead.

Ganoderma is a wood-decay fungus causing a white rot in the roots and the stem bases of trees. Affected wood is turned soft, spongy and fibrous. It commonly leads to windthrow as afflicted trees are no longer effectively anchored into the ground. Another of Rob McBride’s photographs shows what look to be Fistulina hepatica (beefsteak fungus) brackets on the Oak at the Gate of the Dead. This fungus will also decay the base of the stem, but it causes a brown rot where the affected wood is turned brittle.

Another small Ganoderma bracket on the Oak at the Gate of the Dead.

An article at treehugger.com on the Oak at the Gate of the Dead - riddled with inaccuracies, such as that the Oak died in 2010 and that it is thought to date back to the reign of King Egbert in 802 “when Wales beat back Henry the Second” (the Battle of Crogen was in 1165) - repeats an incorrect theory put forward in this BBC News article from 2010 as to why the tree split in half. Said local historian Mark Williams:

“It seems to be a victim of the very cold weather. The tree is on marshy ground in a basin with a stream running down nearby. With the stream overflowing because of melting snow, the water must have settled around the trunk and it looks as if this has caused it to split.”

Actually the cold probably had nothing to do with the split, and I really doubt that the wee stream nearby played any part whatsoever. In all probability the Oak split in two simply because it was a very big, very old tree with a much decayed, hollow stem that was pulled apart by its long and extremely heavy limbs acting as levers, each limb pulling downwards and outwards in different directions. The tree had plainly reached a point where the trunk was no longer structurally sound enough to hold together under these forces; a strong wind could have finished it off sooner, or a heavy covering of snow, or some other loading factor. What could have prevented the split? By supporting the larger limbs with props, the forces pulling apart the stem could have been greatly reduced and the Oak at the Gate of the Dead could potentially have been kept in one piece for many years to come.

I actually met Mark Williams while I was at the Oak, where he was showing a Brummie family around, telling them of the big tree and the Battle of Crogen. He approached me because he’d just seen me at the Pontfadog Oak, where he’d been one of the farmyard group. He was a nice bloke; we talked about the two trees, and he was surprised that I knew about them - especially surprised that I knew the Duelling Oak, whose fame is not on a par with the others. Hey, a good treeblogger does his research before setting off on one of these trips!

Mark mentioned that he’d been on TV before – either to do with the battle or the trees, or both (my memory fails me) – and that he would hopefully be on again soon to get out the message that more needs to be done to protect and preserve our ancient trees.


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The Duelling Oak

The Duelling Oak or Duelling Tree.

The Duelling Oak stands perhaps fifty metres away from the Oak at the Gate of the Dead. It is so-called because duels was supposedly fought here, although I’ve been unable to discover any more information than that. According to the Ancient Tree Hunt, its girth at 1.5 m height was 7.3 m (23 ft 11 in) in 2012, giving a dbh of 2.3 m (7 ft 7 in). This makes the Duelling Oak almost a metre narrower than the Oak at the Gate of the Dead, but it is still an impressive veteran tree.

The mossy trunk branches off into several large limbs just above head height, so it is probably an old pollard.

The Duelling Oak, despite its age (and probably having been pollarded many years since), is still a tall tree. It is also supporting a great weight of ivy…


Posted in Notable trees





The fall of the Pontfadog Oak: Britain has lost one of its greatest trees

Thursday last week I heard from my father that a great oak had blown down overnight near Wrexham. From the internet I learned it was the Pontfadog Oak that had fallen – Britain’s second-biggest-girthed sessile oak (Quercus petraea). After doing a bit of research and discovering two other named oaks nearby (a story for another day), I decided to pay my respects and get some photographs of the fallen champion. So on Saturday morning I jumped in the car and drove the 100 miles to Wales – hey, if Yorkshire’s greatest lapsed treeblogger can’t do that, then who can?

Arriving in the tiny village of Pontfadog in Wrexham County Borough about midday, I called in to the post office, bought a Tango, and nonchalantly asked the man behind the counter where exactly could one find ‘the old oak’? He was hesitant. I assured him I would seek permission from the landowner before approaching the tree. Still doubtful, he nevertheless spilled the beans: “up the hill by the pub, left at the chapel, then right along the private drive”. After passing the chapel without realising it, I wandered up and down various lanes until my eagley eyes picked out the prostrate behemoth from a distance.

Once I homed in on Cilcochwyn Farm it became apparent I wasn’t the only one who had made the pilgrimage. A small group were gathered in the farmyard with cups of tea discussing the fate of the unfortunate Pontfadog Oak, which lay sprawled before them, its extremities pressing on the farmhouse. A few other people were standing around the oak, some with their cameras out. I addressed a bloke in the farmyard group.
“Is this your farm?”
“It is.”
“Can I take some photographs of the tree please?”
“Of course you can!” The man in the post office needn’t have been so reticent; there was almost a party atmosphere here!

I had only taken a few pictures when an old man asked if I was looking for the other ramblers. “No, I’m here to see the tree,” I replied. “Really?” He seemed pleasantly surprised. “Where have you come from?” “Sheffield,” I said. “Really?” Surprised again (maybe even astounded). “What’s your interest in trees?” he asked. I told him that I’d studied forestry and ecology at university, that I’m an arborist, and that I have a general interest in trees, really old ones in particular. He produced a small notebook and with the aid of a quick sketch explained the theory put to him as to why the tree had fallen over. The tree was splitting in half so an iron band was installed around the trunk to keep the two halves together; but when one half was ready to fall it had no choice but to bring the other half with it. I didn’t think this plausible. More likely, I explained, was that the oak had little left in the way of structural integrity - the inevitable consequence of an exceptionally long life and the work of wood-decay fungi. Yet it still maintained a respectable crown which unfortunately acted as a sail in the wind. Enough wind that night and over it went. Perhaps if the tree had been propped up, like many grand old trees are, then the Pontfadog Oak could have survived last week’s gales and remained standing for many years to come.

A snapped root; the tissue appears to be living albeit with fungal rot present.

Still, I was in for a shock when I saw both the underside of the tree and the soil on which had it stood for centuries. Where were all the roots? For all intents and purposes, there was nothing at all to anchor it to the ground. The biggest roots there, which were really nothing, were completely rotten. There were a couple of small straggly roots that were live wood, but had they really managed to sustain the whole tree? Like I said, the crown was quite respectable, so I was completely baffled by the apparent absence of anything to pull water out of the ground. The only reason the tree remained upright prior to Wednesday night was the sheer bulk of its enormous trunk: simple gravity! When too much wind dragged in its sail (which was still leafless, so not even that effective a sail) the whole tree just rolled over without a fight, exposing a bare patch of undisturbed soil. The Pontfadog Oak really ought to have been artificially supported!

A completely dead and rotten snapped root. This could no longer anchor the tree in the ground.

So what can I tell you about the Pontfadog Oak prior to this catastrophe? Its demise has made the news, where unfortunately certain myths regarding this famed tree have been promulgated as facts. I’ll summarise here under the heading ‘Facts’ a few things that I think are safe to call the truth, followed under the heading ‘Non-facts’ by a few things I believe are doubtful or implausible. ‘Tis a valuable public service I perform…

I spotted this graffiti on a piece of old deadwood: ‘T.L. 1939’

Facts
- In 2007 the director of the Tree Register, David Alderman, measured the girth of the Pontfadog Oak at 1.5 m from the ground as 12.9 m. 1
- In 2006 the tree was around 11 m tall. 1
- In 2012 “a group of experts from the Ancient Tree Forum visited the Pontfadog Oak and put together a list of actions that they believed could help conserve it. Although the total cost was only £5,700, these actions were never taken as no funding source was available.” 2
- The tree is referred to by George Borrow in his book Wild Wales, first published in 1862. 3
- It was perhaps the third ‘fattest’ of our two native oaks, Quercus petraea and Quercus robur. 3 The Tree Register considers the Marton Oak in Cheshire to be the fattest, with a diameter of 446 cm, even though it is in a state of collapse with the trunk made up of three separated sections. The Tree Register’s Handbook records the diameter of the Pontfadog Oak as being 409 cm in 1999 “around collapsing parts”. The only other fatter oak listed is one at Great Witley, Worcestershire, which had a diameter of 411 cm at 1 m height in 2007 “under division of three parts”. 4
- Rob McBride, tree hunter: “…until about 200 years ago [it] was a tree that was pollarded – with branches and leaves regularly cut to feed animals and build fencing.” This guy was a local and I trust he knows his stuff. 5
- The Pontfadog Oak was designated one of fifty Great British Trees in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 “in recognition of its place in the national heritage”. 6

Old deadwood colonised by colourful lichens.

Non-facts
- “The 1,200 year old Pontfadog Oak... is said to have grown near Chirk in Wrexham since 802 [AD]…” 2 It is next to impossible to date a tree of this size and condition with any accuracy. You can’t count the annual rings – the tree is hollow and very rotten, so the oldest wood no longer exists. You can’t make an estimation based on known growth rates of oak – way too many variables, especially on that time scale and with the likely variations in crown size over time. Arriving at one specific year – 802 – is frankly ridiculous and almost certainly wrong.
- “It is known that the Welsh Prince Owain Gwynedd rallied his army under the tree in 1157, before taking on, and defeating the English King Henry II at the battle of Crogen nearby.” 2 How is this ‘known’? Are there contemporary records pinpointing this exact tree? Could this information have been reliably passed down for nearly 900 years? (See the number of lost battle sites in this country.) Would the Pontfadog Oak really have been a large enough tree almost nine centuries ago for a Welsh prince to choose it as his rally point?
- “It was the oldest oak tree in Wales, probably the oldest in Britain and one of the oldest in the world. Although it has been said since it came down the tree was about 1,200 years old I believe it may be even older. I remember there was a millennium project done on it in 2000 and at that time experts suggested it may be even about 1,700 years.” 7 1,700 years old? I really can’t see it.

A burr (or burl) halfway up the trunk.

I wonder what will happen next to this enormous and extraordinarily long-lived tree. I hope at least that the trunk can be preserved in some way; it would be a shame to leave it to rot away in the corner of a field somewhere, or to have it carved up for firewood.

Last week this would have been a bird’s-eye view.

Sources
1 Sessile oak close to Pontfadog in Gyntraian. Monumental Trees.
2 Wales loses its oldest oak tree, the Pontfadog Oak. Woodland Trust.
3 Condolences for Wales’ National Tree. Woodland Matters.
4 Johnson, Owen (2011). Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland (The Tree Register Handbook).
5 Pontfadog Oak: 1,200-year-old tree toppled by winds. BBC.
6 List of Great British Trees. Wikipedia.
7 Expert says 1,200-year-old oak tree near Oswestry cannot be saved. Shropshire Star.

The massive, hollow, burred bole of the fallen Pontfadog Oak.


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Next post: A visit to the nearby Oak at the Gate of the Dead & the Duelling Oak.


Posted in Notable trees





A beech at the height of its powers

They don’t come much better than this: an enormous beech (Fagus sylvatica) at the top of its game, yet net showing any sign of decline. It is one of a long row of mature beeches running mysteriously through the middle of Spout House Wood in the in delightful Ewden Valley. Who planted them, and when, and why?

In the bottom of the valley More Hall Reservoir is so full it’s overflowing. We’ve had a hell of a lot of rain recently, but the local reservoirs already filled in a short period in the autumn after spending most of last year half empty. It’s been so long since they’ve been properly full that it’s weird seeing them like this. I’d gotten used to seeing More Hall Reservoir as I photographed it in these posts from January and September 2011!

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), an ancient woodland indicator species, in Morehall Reservoir Plantation. I confess I hadn’t a clue what it was until I looked it up. I need to work on my herb ident!

Much of the plantation was clear-felled at the end of 2010 but it has since been replanted. I had a look inside a fair few of the tree guards and they all contained baby hazels (Corylus avellana).

This is one herb I do know: wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), another indicator of ancient woodland.

Downy birch (Betula pubescens) catkins. The drooping yellowish catkins are made up of male flowers and will soon be dispensing pollen. The upright green catkins are made up of female flowers, and will dispense seeds later in the year when they too will be hanging downwards.

The view north across Ewden, taken with my back to Spout House Wood. The hand of spring has given the landscape a welcome boost of greenery.

Back to that sublime beech…

A mind-boggling number of branches!


Posted in Gone for a walk





Perfect Sunday walk around Dale Dike and Strines Reservoirs (Part 1): ancient oaks & Boot’s Folly

Impressive ash on the way to Dale Dike Dam.

On Sunday I went walking with a couple of buddies in perfect weather through some beautiful countryside. Even though we’re not yet halfway through March it was a very good impression of summer: hot and cloudless and lovely. We set out from Lower Bradfield in the morning and walked along the south-eastern shore of Dale Dike Reservoir, looped around Strines reservoir via Boot’s Folly and the Strines Inn, then followed the north-western shore of Dale Dike back to Lower Bradfield, before climbing the hill to Upper Bradfield where we enjoyed a pint and some pub grub in the afternoon sun. It was a great way to spend a Sunday.

I’m 99% sure that this is Daldinia concentrica, a fungus going by the common names of King Alfred’s cakes, carbon balls, and cramp balls. There were a few of them growing on a dead tree by the dam wall at Dale Dike Reservoir.

This is a seriously ancient oak. It grows between the two reservoirs and when I first spotted it I was amazed – amazed because this is the first veteran oak of this class I have found in my local area. Then I was excited. It looks smaller it really is in this photograph – my photos never seem to do big trees justice – but you can see it is a tree of great antiquity; an old pollard, from the look of it. 400 years old? 500? I look forward to putting it to the tape measure!

A nice little hawthorn.

A pause on the climb up to the folly for a look back over Dale Dike Reservoir.

Boot’s Folly! This 45 foot high tower was built in 1927 by Charles Boot of nearby Sugworth Hall (son of Henry Boot, founder of the eponymous LSE-listed company) to keep his workmen occupied during the Great Depression. There are stairs inside the tower but only at the very top – the story goes that they were mostly removed in the 1970s after a cow got itself stuck up there. The folly is a well-known local landmark that can be seen from much of the surrounding country, to which it adds character. It’s my opinion that it looks most impressive when viewed from up close, with the countryside as a backdrop.

This big ash grows just south of Strines Reservoir. The two branches on the left sure reach a good distance from the stem.

Another ancient oak pollard! This one is more squat and not so tall as the oak already passed, but it’s still a reverential veteran that has witnessed the passing of more than a couple of centuries. It’s part of a line of old trees that follow the stone wall on the left.

Continued in Part 2 & Part 3.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Notable trees





It’s never too cold to go looking at ancient alders

On Friday afternoon I took my father on a little walk to check out some ancient-looking alders I’d spotted last weekend, when I was unable to get close enough for a good look because the Little Don was in the way.

It was so cold that the Little Don had actually started to freeze over! At work in the morning one of the vans had given the outside temperature as -5 °C, but that was in the middle of Sheffield where it was almost certainly warmer. Proper face-numb-er!

I love these two Scots pines. I love this whole area! It’s brill!

These icicles highlighted the bedding planes in one of the little land-slips.

Looking down on one of the old alders (Alnus glutinosa)…

Here’s another. It’s certainly an old one – look at the girth around the bottom of the trunk. Still, I was hoping they would be a bit bigger. If my memory is correct, the one I found in the autumn a short way away up Mickleden Beck is much bigger and more ancient (in appearance at least).

As well as old alders, five or six yews (Taxus baccata) grow on this side of the river. All of them have thriving, healthy crowns, although none have any serious trunk girth. The smallest of the yews (not the one in the photo) is interesting in that almost the entire tree had died off in some catastrophe, but it has regenerated with a vengeance and the crown is so well-formed and hale that from a distance you wouldn’t believe what a disaster befell it. Up close, you can see the old dead stems and branches and see how only a small line of living bark runs up the back of the trunk, although this appears to be doing its best to encircle the rest of trunk. No wonder yews live forever if this is what they can do!

This, the alder seen from above a few photos back, is the biggest of the handful of alders here. They all look to be coppices – but whether they are naturally coppicing themselves as old stems die off and new ones grow, or whether they have been managed in the forgotten past, I couldn’t possibly know.

It’s a lovely old tree.

When I turned around this hawthorn was trying to limbo or something.

Downy brrrrrch.

This is my absolute favourite kind of light – the late afternoon, pre-sunset light you get on a cloudless day that bathes the landscape in a golden glow. It has the power to make a photograph feel warm even despite it having been taken in Baltic conditions!


Posted in Gone for a walk





Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part Three)

Following on from Part One & Part Two

Scots pine – probably my favourite photo of the trip.

Another fine pine, but you may have noticed that the lower trunk is dead and barkless on the left-hand side. The crown still looks healthy though.

Orangey Scots pine bark caught in the late afternoon sun must be one of the nicest colours a tree can possibly be, don’t you think?

A hydra-like downy birch (Betula pubescens).

Downy birks and a pointy holly (Ilex aquifolium). Down in the bottom, the Ryvoan Pass runs gently uphill from Glenmore, which is off to the right / south-west. You can get across to Nethy Bridge if you follow the Pass, but I looped back to my base at the youth hostel in Glenmore.

The lower slopes of Cairn Gorm occupy the distance. I climbed to the top a couple of days later, it becoming my sixth Munro bagged to date. Only another 277 to go then.

The junipers sure looked lovely illuminated by the setting sun.

This pine was an absolute monster! The stump and wound at the bottom of the tree coupled with the lack of any branches on this side of the trunk show that this monster was, until recently, a twin-stemmed monster – i.e. it was twice as big as it is now!!

Here it is from a distance: look at the crazy spread of those lower branches! It’s three trees in one, arranged like the ace of clubs! And to say half of the tree is missing… Wow.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part One) – including a brief history of Glenmore

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) in the Ryvoan Pass, near Glenmore.

At Glenmore, near Aviemore, there is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Today, only 180 km² of the Caledonian Forest remain – a pathetic 1% of its estimated maximum extent. As is usually the way, Homo sapiens is to blame for the loss. If you’d like to find out more about the Caledonian Forest, let me point you in the direction of Trees For Life, an inspirational organisation ambitiously dedicated to restoring a 2,300 km² area of the Forest. This description of the Caledonian Forest is taken from their website:

The Caledonian Forest originally covered much of the Highlands of Scotland… the native pinewoods, which formed the westernmost outpost of the boreal forest in Europe, are estimated, at their maximum extent, to have covered 1.5 million hectares as a vast primeval wilderness of Scots pines, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and other trees. On the west coast, oak and birch trees predominated in a temperate rainforest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens. Many species of wildlife flourished in the forest, including the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and the wolf, as well as several notable species of birds - the capercaillie, the crested tit, and the endemic Scottish crossbill, which occurs nowhere else in the world apart from the pinewoods.

However, there has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland, and clearance of the land began in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate 'vermin' such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.

Today only a tiny percentage of the original forests survive, and the native pinewoods have been reduced to 35 isolated remnants. Gone with the trees are all the large mammals, with the exception of the deer. Species such as the brown bear and the wild boar had become extinct by the 10th and 17th centuries respectively, while the last to disappear was the wolf, when the final individual was shot in 1743.

A large witch’s broom on a large downy birch (Betula pubescens) – a common abnormal growth caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina.

After staying at Fearnan by Loch Tay for a couple of nights, from where I visited the Birks of Aberfeldy and Britain’s widest conifer at Cluny House Gardens, I drove north to Glenmore (climbing Schiehallion – Munro no. 5 - en route) and checked into Cairngorm Lodge, a SYHA hosel, for four nights. The next day (Nov. 20th) I meandered (really meandered) part-way up the Ryvoan Pass to An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan. I’d walked down the pass and past the Lochan to camp near Glenmore three years previously with two friends, towards the end of a hike from Blair Atholl to Aviemore, but that’s another story.

Looking up at one of the giant Scots pines of the Caledonian Forest.

To provide you with a very brief history of Glenmore during the past century, I’ve just skimmed through the excellent little book I bought from the Glenmore Forest Shop during my stay. The book is called ‘No rivalry but different’; Glenmore and Rothiemurchus in the 20th Century, the third publication in the Touchwood History series. It was written by Mairi Stewart and first published in 2010.

Pine foliage against a clear, blue sky – it was a lovely day for late November in the Highlands!

One hundred years ago, the estate of Glenmore was owned by the Dukes of Richmond, who used it as a hunting ground. Between 1916 and 1918, during the First World War, just over a hundred thousand trees on the estate were felled to provide timber for the war effort – to make pit props, trench supports, crates, etc. Thankfully, the 7th Duke, Charles Gordon-Lennox, is said to have stipulated that some trees were retained to allow the forest to naturally regenerate – trees to be spared had the Duke’s stamp burned onto them. In 1923, the Duke sold the 12,474 acre estate to the newly-created Forestry Commission. Although the Commission decided that three-quarters of the estate were unsuitable for forestry, it had planted around 1,300 acres by 1934 – favouring the faster-growing but non-native Sitka spruce, Norway spruce and European larch over Scots pine.

Looking up at an absolute monster of a Caledonian pine. I have never seen Scots pines like these – they really are jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly awesome.

Glenmore escaped the forester’s axe during the Second World War because it was considered more important for training soldiers than for supplying timber (although neighbouring remnants of the Caledonian Forest, at Abernethy and Rothiemurchus, were not so lucky).

A large fragment of scaly pine bark.

Glenmore was run as both a sporting and forestry estate until 1947, when it was designated a Forest Park. This re-branding officially recognised the popularity of parts of the estate with outdoor activities enthusiasts. Extensive planting continued throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, however. In the 1960s recreation at Glenmore, particularly skiing, really took off, and a lot of new infrastructure was built. By the early Eighties the campsite at Glenmore was accommodating a thousand people at its busiest, and the main focus had shifted from forestry to recreation.

In the foreground – juniper (Juniperus communis). I have never seen so much juniper! In many places it formed an almost continuous shrub layer beneath the pine trees. Very pretty, very necessary for gin, but very prickly when wading through a waist-deep sea of the stuff to get to the next big pine.

During the 1990s the Forestry Commission underwent a significant change in its outlook and policies, with the old approach of “create as much timber as possible” replaced with a more responsible approach to forest stewardship. At Glenmore this meant felling the non-native trees planted in earlier decades, resulting in the decimation of two-thirds of the forest. These areas are being replanted with the native Scots pine.

Huge. Beautiful. Ancient.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Woodland restructuring at Langsett Reservoir

Four weeks ago I went for a walk to Mickleden Beck to see what kind of trees grew there; I’d heard a rumour of aspen. My route took me past Langsett Reservoir, where some pretty big changes have been taking place over the last year or two. Much of the conifer plantation on the south-west side of the reservoir has been clearfelled and subsequently replanted with native species.

According to an information board erected by the owners, Yorkshire Water, the woods are being restructured as part of the East Midlands Woodland Bird Project:

Planted in 1962, comprising approximately 25 hectares of coniferous woodland, the North America plantation including Delf Edge and Mauk Royd is being managed to help native woodland birds… We’re felling most of the coniferous trees whilst saving and protecting key native trees. The area will be re planted with oak and birch trees to develop new upland oak woodland, with woody shrubs like hazel, blackthorn, alder, willow and rowan.

I wrote a post here about the same time last year, while the conifers were still being felled.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the new woodland develops!

Larch. Whether European, Japanese or Dunkeld (hybrid), I wouldn’t like to say. I am not confident telling the three apart.

I failed to find any aspen at Mickleden Beck, but I didn’t search for long. What I did find was this incredible veteran alder (Alnus glutinosa) growing beside the stream. It is truly ancient, and is perhaps an old pollard. And keeping it company through the years is an ancient holly (Ilex aquifolium)! Both trees were in shade by the time I got to them, so I didn’t get any great photos – but I’ll be back!

On the return leg, Langsett Reservoir and the surrounding moors were lit by the late afternoon autumn sunlight.

That’s Hartcliff Hill in the distance there.

A peaceful pool on Midhope Moors. I hope those clouds lend some symmetry!

The reservoir was still illuminated as the day slid into twilight.

A lonely, half-dead birch that had once grown amongst the conifers has been left standing after all the felling. It’s in a bad way, but it is possible that next year it will produce seed and its offspring will be a part of the new wood. The three bracket fungi are Piptoporus betulinus – razor strop or birch polypore.

The birch has managed to outlive the conifers that suppressed it all its life, but for how much longer?

Langsett Reservoir at dusk.


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This month’s Festival of the Trees is hosted by Georgia at local ecologist. There are a ton of great links, as always – something is bound to pique your interest!


Posted in Gone for a walk + Notable trees





Holiday snaps from the French Riviera

Whizzing past a vineyard in the south of France.

I flew to France with three mates a couple of weeks ago. We landed at Nimes, picked up our hire car, and set out on a six-day jaunt along the Côte d’Azur taking in Marseilles, Toulon, Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Monaco, Nice and Arles. It was awesome. A few observations: the French don’t know what real tea is / beer costs twice as much as it does in the UK / the French aren’t afraid to bash into things (other cars, bollards, etc) when parking / the French don’t appear to drink milk (or chocolate milk) / London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) is the street tree of choice / street trees and trees at campsites are almost all kept perpetually pollarded and/or subjected to extreme butchery! (And never, ever take your car into a French multi-storey car-park if you value your paintwork.)

The top of a pollarded London plane. All those wounds are bound to let in disease, and most of the trees were partially or entirely hollow. I have a photo of my friend stood inside one!

This square in Saint-Tropez was lovely with its dozens of plane trees. I wish we had somewhere like this in Sheffield!

Pine trees at one of the campsites. These pines grew in great abundance everywhere but I don’t know what species they were.

This olive tree (Olea europaea) stood in a beautiful public garden in Monaco. Judging from the size of its base, I’d say it was very old indeed.

I think this is some kind of fig tree (Ficus), but again I don’t know the species. There were quite a few growing in Monaco. I thought these buttresses made a good throne.

Some of the figs were dropping aerial roots down from their crowns. This group had almost reached the ground.

Another fig’s buttresses had formed a impressive wall!

Palm tree, Saint-Tropez.


Posted in Holidays and field trips





Sunset on Wind Hill

A young oak rises from a sea of bilberry.

Monday evening. The sun was setting as I discovered an ancient oak coppice in a field above Wind Hill Wood.

Here a ring of callus wood has grown around the base of a dead branch to try and seal the tree against infection.

How old is this oak? More than a couple of centuries?

On a nearby downy birch, where one half of a bough has been split off, I found an adventitious root growing into rotting wood.

Beyond the wood, the sun set over the moors.


Posted in Gone for a walk





The Major Oak of Sherwood Forest

The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest. I paid a short visit on Sunday.

Although not the largest of our ancient oaks, the Major Oak is probably the most famous tree in Britain. Its fame stems from its association with the myriad legends of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. As the romantics would have it, the outlaw from Loxley variously hid from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men inside the Major Oak’s hollow trunk or he kept his larder of venison within the tree along with his takings from the rich.

The Major Oak – an English or pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) - is thought to be around eight hundred years old, but no one can be sure. Recent measurements hold the girth at ten metres (thirty-three feet), with the tree’s branches spreading over twenty-eight metres (ninety-two feet). It is a monstrously impressive tree when seen in the flesh, much larger than the massive Capon Tree that I visited just before Christmas. (And like the Capon Tree, the Major Oak was designated as one of ‘fifty Great British trees’ in celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.)

The tree’s current name is a slight alteration from “the Major’s Oak”, as it was known after being described by Major Hayman Rooke in his book on Sherwood oaks published in 1790. Before that it was known as the Cockpen Tree.

Over the last century there has been much management of the tree with a view to keeping it healthy and whole. In 1908 metal chains were installed in the crown to brace the tree. In the late 1970s large wooden poles were put in place to support the large, spreading branches; these have been replaced with thin, metal poles within the last decade. The Major Oak was fenced off from the public in 1975 to prevent the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors from compacting the soil and damaging the root system.

If a comprehensive gallery of Major Oak photographs and illustrations stretching back over a century is your thing, you could do worse than check out this page at eyemead.com.

A half-dead dotard.

There are a lot of ancient oaks around the Major, although most of them are dead or half-dead: extreme dotards. I need to go back in the summer and pay a proper visit, hopefully on a day that isn’t as overcast as Sunday was. All I could manage photo-wise was drab and colourless.


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I will be hosting next month’s edition of the Festival of the Trees. Please send your submissions to mail [at] treeblog [dot] co [dot] uk before the 30th of January, ensuring that you include Festival of the Trees or FOTT within the header. Thanks!


Posted in Notable trees





The Capon Tree in the snow

I spent a few days in Edinburgh at the weekend catching up with old uni mates. While I was studying, travelling between Edinburgh and Sheffield usually meant a long car journey. After making the trip a few times I found out about the Capon Tree, a veteran sessile oak (Quercus petraea) on the route just outside of Jedburgh in the Borders. On the journey home for Christmas 2005 I made my father and sister - who had driven up from Sheffield to collect me - stop at the tree in the dark! Since then, whenever I’ve taken this route I’ve always kept an eye out for the Capon Tree as I’ve passed. I’ve stopped a few times since – most recently on Monday when I was driving home from Edinburgh in the snow.

I’ve seen various sizes and ages attributed to the Capon Tree, but to avoid confusion I won’t repeat them here. The tree is a relic of the ancient Jed Forest which once covered much of the region. It used to consist of two upright stems but sometime during the twentieth century the tree fell in half; one of the stems remains upright and the other is supported almost horizontally by several sturdy beams keeping it off of the floor. The tree is alive and looking healthy but it’s totally hollow at the base; several people could comfortably fit into the space between the stems. I noticed a few mushrooms and icicles growing on the deadwood in there.

A fairly comprehensive web page on the Capon Tree can be found at John Peters’ photography site, complete with photos of the tree in leaf.

There’s a close-up look at some of the rotten timber inside the hollow:

In 2002, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the Tree Council designated the Capon Tree as one of fifty Great British trees ‘in recognition of its place in the national heritage’.

The Capon Tree stands in a small field between the A68 and the River Jed, just south of Jedburgh. If you’re ever in the vicinity it’s well worth a visit, particularly if like me you’re a fan of impressively massive and ancient trees. I’ve heard of another giant oak nearby called the King of the Woods, but I’ve yet to seek it out. That’s a pleasure for a future journey!

Happy Christmas!


Posted in Notable trees





Pests, diseases, disorders, competing growth and unfavourable conditions (a field trip): the diseases

Last Thursday my arboriculture class set out from college on a field trip to see a smörgåsbord of pests, diseases, disorders, competing growth and unfavourable conditions afflicting a variety of trees in the vicinity of York and Malton. Some of them were new to me, most I were already aware of, but it was a highly interesting way to spend a day and we got to see some cracking trees. Here’s a quick run-through of the diseases that we saw:

Supermassive sycamore (this photo falls a long way short of doing it justice) with decayed Dryad’s saddles. The one on the floor has fallen off the tree.

Dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus) – A bracket fungi. Described in Jordan’s Fungi 1 as “Large, creamy-brown scaly cap with cream pore-bearing under-surface, annual; parasitic on broad-leaf trees, also on stumps, favouring beech, elm and sycamore.” We only saw old and decaying specimens, but the sycamores (Acer pseudoplatanus) they had grown on were jaw-droppingly colossal - easily the biggest I’ve seen! These ancient sycamores formed an avenue along a road near Birdsall House. I’ve got to go back and get some decent photos of them in the summer before they collapse or get felled for safety reasons.

These crazy patterns are galleries produced by elm bark beetles.

Dutch elm disease – The Big Baddie. The current epidemic is caused by the fungus Ophiostma novo-ulmi, spread by elm bark beetles of the genus Scolytus. It is the most catastrophically devastating tree disease ever recorded in British history. On the field trip we saw a dead elm (Ulmus) replete with bark beetle galleries in the wood beneath the bark.

Cankers on a sycamore.

Canker – There are various kinds of cankers and a variety of causes of cankers. Strouts and Winter 2 define a canker as a “clearly defined patch of dead and sunken or malformed bark”. We saw cankers on sycamore and red horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) - a hybrid amusingly described in the Collins Tree Guide 3 as a tree of “rather endearing ugliness”.

Huge ivy-covered canker on a red horse chestnut.

Razor strop on silver birch.

Birch polypore or razor strop (Piptoporus betulinus) – Another bracket-producing fungus, it is restricted to birch (Betula). We saw loads of razor strops on dead and drying silver birches (Betula pendula) in a small piece of woodland that has become waterlogged as a consequence of mining subsidence.

Ganoderma on a veteran English oak.

Ganoderma - A genus of bracket- (polypore) producing fungi that is parasitic on broad-leafed species. We saw a large, dead Ganoderma at the base of a huge and ancient English oak (Quercus robur), but we didn’t identify it to species level. The oak was extremely diseased and its days are sadly numbered.

Slime flux on the same oak.

Slime flux or bacterial wetwood – A bacterial infection causing the host to ooze infected sap from wounds or apparently healthy bark. According to Strouts and Winter 2, bacterial wetwood is “common yet rarely results in overt disease”.

Inonotus hispidus on an ivy-clad ash.

Inonotus hispidus - Another polypore-producer that is parasitic on broad-leaves, particularly ash (Fraxinus excelsior). We saw several dead brackets on an ivy-covered ash growing by a stream.

Fomes fomentarius on silver birch.

Hoof fungus or tinder bracket (Fomes fomentarius) – Like you’d expect, the brackets of this fungus look like hooves. It favours birch – its modus operandi is similar to that of razor strop. We saw several of these brackets on the waterlogged birches.


1 Jordan, M. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Fungi of Britain and Europe. Frances Lincoln.
2 Strouts, R. G. and Winter, T. G. (2000). Diagnosis of ill-health in trees. The Stationary Office.
3 Johnson, O. and More, D. (2006). Collins Tree Guide. HarperCollins Publishers.


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Call for Submissions: Festival 44 Returns to the treeblog. Submit!


Posted in Pests and diseases





The Wigtwizzle Chestnut in the snow

The venerable veteran of Wigtwizzle – a sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) of considerable age and girth.

These photos are from a couple of Sundays ago when, driving home over the moors, I was ambushed by much snow. I couldn’t resist stopping for a few piccies.

These beeches (Fagus sylvatica) grow in the adjacent parkland that once surrounded Broomhead Hall.


Posted in Notable trees





Set D: sweet chestnuts collected & planted

Three sweet chestnuts sitting in an opened cupule. The dead catkin that held the male flowers, still attached to the base of the cupule (which once was a female flower), can be seen in the background. [Photo: 8 Oct. ‘09]

Last Thursday (the 8th of October) I went on a tree mission to Wigtwizzle with my sister. Mission objective: to collect nuts from the massive sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) there for treeblog Set D.

The Wigtwizzle chestnut. Beast! [Photo: 7 Jul. ‘07]

While a lot of unripe cupules were stillon the tree, a great many ripe ones were lying open on the ground below. While trying to avoid a nettling, I managed to gather a haul of chestnuts with a total fresh weight of 75 g (2 ½ oz). Mission accomplished!

The Set D sweet chestnut haul. Third time lucky?

I collected nuts from the same tree in 2007 and 2008 for Set B and Set C respectively, but I didn’t manage to grow a single seedling. I now know the error of my bad old ways; I erred by waiting until spring before planting, by which time the chestnuts – which lose moisture rapidly and so are unsuited to storage – would have been well and truly dessicated. This time around, with only two days passing between collection and planting, treeblog might finally produce some baby sweet chestnuts.

Come closer…

I planted one hundred of the nuts yesterday in five forty-individual-pockets-to-a-tray seed trays using a special seeds and cuttings compost from B&Q. I ran out of room (and out of compost), so I had about sixty nuts left over. Until I decide what to do with them, I’ve mixed ‘em with some damp compost and popped ‘em in a plastic bag.

One of the seed trays showing forty chestnuts in forty ‘pockets’: a planting action shot.

The final product: five seed trays with one hundred sweet chestnuts carefully picked and planted. This is treeblog Set D(c) - the chestnut part of Set D. Set D(b) – the beech part – was planted on the 30th of September and the rowan seeds – Set D(r) – have just begun pretreatment and are on schedule for a springtime planting.

The 10th of October 2009 = Set D(c) Day 0.


Posted in Notable trees + The treeblog trees





treeblog Set D: collection and pre-pretreatment of rowan seeds

Looking into the canopy of the Whitwell Moor rowan. [Photo: 12 Sep. ‘09]

On Saturday the 12th of September I went for a late summer’s wander with my father. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was stunning, and our route just happened to pass by a couple of special trees: two rowans from which we collected berries to plant for treeblog’s Set D, one on Whitwell Moor and one overlooking Oaken Clough high up in the Ewden Valley.

Berries on the Whitwell Moor rowan. [Photo: 12 Sep. ‘09]

I previously collected berries from the Whitwell Moor rowan in autumn 2008 which I planted as part of treeblog Set C this spring (along with berries from another rowan, downy birch seeds, and sweet chestnuts), then replanted as Set C-r on the 12th of May. None of those seeds have germinated to date, presumably because I never pretreated them before planting them - something I didn’t realise was necessary. Without the pretreatment they still ought to germinate, but a whole year later rather than in the same year like I expected. So treeblog is expecting rowans from both Set C and Set D to germinate in spring 2010!

The Whitwell Moor rowan on the day of my Set D berry collection: the 12th of September 2009.

I discovered the Oaken Clough rowan this summer on the 18th of July. When I first lay peepers on it I knew that it had the biggest girth of any rowan I’d ever seen. I measured it on the berry run: 3.4 m (11 ft 2 in.) in circumference at about shin height. That gives a diameter of 1.1 m (3 ft 7 in.). These figures might not sound very impressive, but for a rowan they are well impressive. Unfortunately, this monster of a rowan has suffered a catastrophic collapse. Most of the collapsed boughs nevertheless remain alive, and since this incident the tree has put out a lot of new growth. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t keep on going for many years to come.

The Oaken Clough rowan. Massive yet collapsed. [Photo: 18 Jul. ‘09]

After I’d picked my berries, I sort of forgot about them for a couple of weeks. I just couldn’t stomach the upcoming task…

The Oaken Clough rowan berries. The black ones have gone bad. [Photo: 20 Sep. ‘09].

Then last week I got around to removing the seeds from the berries. This was a long, time-consuming process. I estimate it took me four or five hours, and that was only working with about half of the berries! The other half had gone rotten because I’d waited so long to act. I should have removed all of the seeds when the berries were fresh, but then ten hours of seed extraction would have sent me pathologically insane. Whatever, the outcome is I have plenty of seeds.

The Whitwell Moor rowan berries. [Photo: 20 Sep. ‘09].

This afternoon I removed any bits of husk still attached to the seeds. How nice and clean they look!

The clean extracted rowan seeds earlier today. The Oaken Clough rowan’s seeds appear to be slightly larger than those of the Whitwell Moor rowan.

Right. Now the seeds are all ready for pretreatment. To improve my chances of Set D success, I’ll be trying out not one, not two, but three methods of pretreatment. My two piles of seeds will be split into thirds, and each pair of thirds will undergo a different method of pretreatment. These methods are laid out in a Forestry Commission practice guide, and an upcoming post will detail what they are. The pretreatment has actually already begun for one pair of thirds: they are currently being soaked for 48 hours to rinse off any germination-inhibiting chemicals!

N.B. As each of the three Set D species are being planted on different days, I’m going to describe the rowans as belonging to Set D-r, the beeches – which were planted on Wednesday - as belonging to Set D-b, and the sweet chestnuts – which I have yet to collect – as belonging to Set D-c. That’s just to make things easier when I say blah blah blah Set D-r, Day XX.


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The fortieth edition of the Festival of the Trees is over at local ecologist. Go read!


Posted in Gone for a walk + The treeblog trees





A huge ash in Glen Lyon. The Falls of Acharn.

One really, really big ash.

Somewhere in Glen Lyon grows a bloody huge veteran ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Though it has a girth of truly enormous proportions, it is sadly lacking in the height department after a recent pollarding. I reckon this major piece of tree surgery was carried out about ten years ago in order to make the tree safe – it stands at the side of a road – by removing a diseased / rotten / dying crown. Happily, the tree is looking super healthy and vigorous today and has put on plenty of new growth since it was pollarded, forming a nice ball-shaped crown.

All photos taken on Tuesday the 4th of August.

Two ashes.

A look round the other side.

The longest drop at the Falls of Acharn.

Later in the day after a drive around the eastern end of Loch Tay we parked the car in Acharn and went for a walk up by the burn to see the Falls of Acharn. July was very wet and the few days prior to our visit had been quite rainy, so the Falls were an impressive sight with Acharn Burn in good spate. There isn’t just a single fall, but rather a series of spectacular falls; the photo above shows the biggest drop, which can be admired from a wee viewing platform accessed through a “hermit’s cave” (read small T-shaped tunnel apparently built in the 1760s). Further upstream are a series of smaller yet equally (if not more so) impressive waterfalls in a rapids-stylee. If you’re up in the Loch Tay area they are definitely worth a visit.

This page on the Walking Highlands site and this Wikipedia page have a few of photos that show the same views as a couple of mine, but with the burn in a much reduced flow.

Part of the series of smaller falls further upstream of the big drop. Note the daredevil tree (centre top of the photo) growing right out of the rock and leaning over the churning pool.

Even further upstream. If you like waterfalls, treeblog will soon be treating you to more watery goodness in the form of Killin’s Falls of Dochart and the Lake District’s Aira Force.

Rogues and beeches.

And still in the vicinity of the Falls, a luscious young hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is coming along nicely.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





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