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16th March 2017

Managing standing dead veteran trees

David Humphries

Hampstead Heath tree in vascular decline following significant storm damage in the 1990’s.

David Humphries, Trees Management Officer for the City of London, writes about veteran trees retained as standing dead wood at Hampstead Heath

Although not an ancient tree the veteran boundary oak (Quercus robur) above has now been retained at an acceptable level of risk, as a standing dead structure for its niche habitat and biodiversity value. It was in vascular decline for a number of years following significant storm damage in the 1990s, and it eventually succumbed naturally due to loss of canopy and to a poor partial rooting environment. The oak sits next to a well-used path in an urban open space with regular footfall within a couple of meters.

By David Humphries

Reducing risk by cutting branches above a path

Consideration was given to maintaining the whole tree to allow natural decline and disintegration by moving the path, but access and environmental factors were restrictive. We therefore decided to manage the risk to the public by incrementally reducing the tree toward a standing stem over a 10 year period, and carrying out an annual inspection of its stability. Before each section or branch is removed we check the loose bark and cavities for signs of habitation by bats and other wildlife.  At Hampstead Heath we maintain a large number of dead standing trees to provide habitat until younger oaks can do so once they have become veterans and ancients themselves.

The oak tree is host to a wide array of successional fungal species from the heart wood decayers of Laetiporus sulphureus (below) and Fistulina hepatica that have been active for many decades through to the benign species like Ganoderma lucidum  that act more saprophytically on the dysfunctional wood. This decay activity provides the ideal environment for a myriad of saproxylic invertebrates, mammals and birds, a large number of which are very rare and threatened.  Other notable species associated with this monolith are Kestrels, Hornets and Stag beetles.

David Humphries

chicken-of-the-woods fungus Laetiporus sulphureus on the monolith

When we have the time we try and utilise fracture and coronetting to finish the cuts – techniques that were developed to mimic the way that tears and fractured ends naturally occur on trunks and branches. The results leave the trees with a more natural aesthetic.

David Humphries

Using fracture and coronet cutting to mimic natural tears and fractured

Standing dead trees are appreciated for their cultural and heritage value as well as their biodiversity, as demonstrated by this recent photograph of an artist painting the oak on Hampstead Heath .

David Humphries

Artist painting standing dead tree on Hampstead Heath


Posted by: David Humphries David Humphries is Trees Management Officer for the City of London at Hampstead Heath where there are over 400 veterans and a number of ancient trees.

9 Comments | Leave a Comment

  • Peter Lyons says:
    Posted March 17, 2017 at 8:38 am

    What a refreshing report, common sense rather than H&S winning for once.

  • Guy meilleur says:
    Posted March 17, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Not the best fate for a living tree, but definitely the best for a dead tree!
    Great work by Mr. Humphries and staff.

  • Mark Forrester says:
    Posted March 18, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Nice to see someone thinking first and cutting second.

  • Jeremy Wright says:
    Posted March 18, 2017 at 10:50 am

    It was a pity to see this one gradually decline, but really good follow-on work by David and the arb team. So much better than removal, which many open spaces would have felt necessary.

  • Brian French says:
    Posted March 18, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Commendable arborist work.

  • Linda dolata says:
    Posted April 07, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    I am local to the Heath, and recognise many of the significant trees, including this one, almost as ‘old friends’. It is good to know that they always receive such attention and care, (dead or alive) from Dave Humphries and his team

  • Marie Lunn says:
    Posted April 12, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Very informative. Good to know more is taken in to consideration than just how unsightly some may think a dead tree is.

  • Mike Morey says:
    Posted January 06, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    This is very important work. Keep it going. I’m behind this 100%

  • cody david says:
    Posted January 09, 2018 at 5:08 am

    Inspirational story I love this movement I try to leave snags whenever possible it’s a art as well as a great thing for any ecosystem awesome work and keep it going bro


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