28th October 2015
ATF field visit to the Lake District
The Ancient Tree Forum’s Autumn visit to the Lake District in early October centred on Borrowdale and Watendlath. Maurice Pankhurst, National Trust Woodland Ranger, and one of the leading ancient pollard managers in the UK, led the tour. By Hannah Solloway.
The day began by a centuries-old lapsed oak pollard near the National Trust’s Bowe Barn, now partially hidden under some Douglas Fir, and only discovered in recent years. Maurice explained that with its history of mining and intensive management, there was a high demand for wood in Borrowdale, which remains one of the most treed valleys in the Lake District.
Ted Green, ATF founder, talked about ‘venison and vert’. Holly, which along with ivy was protected during Mediaeval times as winter fodder, was regarded as a ‘working’ tree which provided food and shelter for livestock.
Watendlath is at the head of a glacial hanging valley dominated by wood pasture, with an internationally important assemblage of around 500 ash and other pollarded species including oak, sycamore and birch. Formerly, the cut ash branches would have been put to many uses, including fodder for the stock. Much of it was also sold to joiners, wheelwrights, cartmakers and other craftsmen. Nowadays the only current use of the wood is for wood fuel, but the National Trust pollards around 1500 trees in the valley on a regular cycle of up to around 15 years, to prevent them from collapsing, and to retain their landscape value.
Chalara (ash dieback) could potentially be devastating in the Lake District where ash trees are so dominant, and there has been a confirmed outbreak nearby. Responses discussed by the group included the planting of replacement trees of other species such as rowan, sycamore, lime and aspen. Generally, in line with best practice, the National Trust is leaving all ancient and other veteran trees standing for as long as possible.
Individual ash pollards can be outstandingly valuable for their biodiversity. Maurice (pictured above) has to decide on a tree-by-tree basis how to manage such trees, given their increased susceptibility to ash dieback after cutting. This particular tree, which has a very rich lobarian community with numerous old lichens, will continue to be pollarded because high winds could otherwise cause catastrophic collapse.
Peter Quelch, one of the leading specialists on ancient and other veteran trees in Scotland, was recently invited to study wood pasture and practices in pollarding trees in the Lake District. He brought with him a display about pollards in the Lakes.
Traditionally, drovers taking animals to market would have stopped under pollards like this one, and cut off some branches for the animals to feed on. Tree fodder is still given to sheep in some parts of Cumbria, with farmers leaving cuttings in the fields.
At Seathwaite, we visited the ‘Fraternal Four’, made famous by William Wordsworth in his poem ‘Yew Trees’, written in 1803. One of the four yew trees was uprooted shortly after the poem was written, so there are now three wonderfully gnarled and hollowed trees. These remaining three are still going strong, and since much of the upper part of the tree highest up the slope came down in a storm in 2005, letting in more light, the tree below it has responded with excellent epicormic growth.
The trees are known to be at least 1500 years old but are likely to be much older that, pre-dating the Romans. They appear to be three separate trees, but in fact DNA research carried out by Maurice Pankhurst and the Forestry commission in Scotland have proved that two of the three share an identical DNA fingerprint, and therefore grew from the same original tree. Seed has been collected from the Fraternal Three, and saplings are now growing in these protective cages nearby and in other remote areas in Borrowdale.
The ATF’s Keith Alexander shows a glow-worm larva which he found in one of the yews. Seathwaite, which is the wettest inhabited place in Britain, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, rich in invertebrate interest, lichen flora, bryophytes and liverworts, many of which are associated with the ancient pollards.
At the end of the day, a number of people expressed an interest in forming an Ancient Tree Forum Cumbria group. Ian Jack, Head forester at Lowther Estates, where he manages the ancient and veteran trees, will be setting this up with the support of Luke Steer.