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The Capon Tree, a hollow oak near JedburghPhoto: Photo by Chris KnapmanHome > Ancient Trees > What are ancient & veteran trees

Ancient, veteran and other definitions

What do we mean by ancient?
Think of an ancient tree and words that might come to mind are gnarled, knobbly, huge, bent and hollow. These sorts of characteristics are just as important as the actual age of the tree, but the term ancient is applied specifically to trees that are ancient in years. Ancient trees are those which have reached a great age in comparison with others of the same species.

How old is an ancient tree?
The exact age at which you’d call a tree ancient depends on the species of tree and other factors including the type of site where it’s growing.  A birch tree could be considered as ancient at 150 years old, for example, but an oak tree would not be thought of as ancient until it’s at least 400 years old. Yew trees can live for thousands of years, so are not defined as ancient until they are 800 years old. It is often difficult to estimate how old an ancient tree is, but one method that is used, alongside considering the ancient characteristics, is to measure the girth of the trunk (see further information below).

What does an ancient tree look like?
Characteristics of an ancient tree depend on the species, and on factors such as the site and conditions under which they have grown.  However, they have three key features:

  • A low, fat and squat shape – because the crown has retrenched (reduced in size) through age
  • A wide trunk compared with others of the same species
  • Hollowing of the trunk (not always visible)

What is a veteran tree?
Unlike an ancient tree, a veteran tree can be any age, but it is a tree which shows ancient characteristics such as those above. These may not just be due to age, but could result from natural damage, management, or the tree’s environment. Ancient trees are all veterans, but not all veterans are ancient.

What is a heritage tree?
A heritage tree is one that is part of our history and culture, and can be connected with specific historic events or people, such as the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest or the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Tree in Dorset. Other heritage trees may simply have particular appeal because of their appearance, landscape character or architectural setting, and have therefore become well-known landmarks in their local communities. There are also heritage trees such as the Thorpeness Apple, which are valued for their great botanical interest, for example as rare native trees or cultivars of historic interest.

What is a notable tree?
The term notable tree usually refers to a tree which is significant locally, because it is special or particularly large compared with the trees around it. Notable trees are usually mature, but not always; Wellingtonias for example, can appear to be huge even when quite young.

What are champion trees?
A champion tree is one which is the tallest, or has the widest girth, of its kind in a specific area.

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