You may know that we have 'Ancient Woodland' here at Warley Woods, you may have wondered what sort of age some of our iconic trees are. 

Ancient Woodland is defined in England and Wales as an area of woodland that has had tree cover since 1600, this makes up just 2.5% of land in the UK, so we are quite lucky to have a portion of that right here on our doorsteps! Interestingly, it is not characterised solely based on the age of the trees that are present there (seems mad right?), but that is because a woodland ecosystem is made up of way more than just the trees, it is a complex community of plants, animals and fungi that take quite a while to get established.

Consider the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) this delicate little plant is an indicator of ancient woodland due to the fact it performs very poor when it comes to seed dispersal, the heavy shiny black seeds drop almost on the same location as the parent plant. This species creeps its way across the woodland floor. A dropped seed can take up to 5 years before it reaches a size large enough to flower this means the annual spread of this plant can be measured in mere centimetres. When you then factor in the fact that this plant is very susceptible to trampling you can draw your own conclusions as to why bluebell woods are few and far between. Another ancient woodland indicator species is Wood Anemone (Anemonoides nemorosa) (pictured), this beautiful springtime plant is again a fairly rubbish self-propagator producing mainly infertile seed, it instead spreads through the growth of its roots. 

That being said trees are obviously an essential ingredient in ancient woodland. Having a range of trees of varying ages and stages of development is ideal, but the older the tree the harder to come by as you may well expect. With age comes experience, older trees: have more areas of deadwood great for beetle larvae, have areas of rot, with druids wells brilliant for developing hoverflies, have holes from woodpeckers to be used by nuthatches, have weaknesses for fungi to get in and have more fissures, cracks and areas of heartwood rot creating cavities for bats to live in. Older trees, especially veteran trees are comparatively rare and incredibly valuable for nature. It is great that here at Warley Woods trees are preserved and tree works are done sympathetically trying to preserve these natural habitats and the species that depend upon them. 

I digress, the purpose of this webpage was to enable you to be able to estimate the age of trees you see around Warley Woods, one that can be surprisingly accurate. The most accurate way to age a tree is through dendrochronology, the counting of the growth rings of a tree. This is obviously a very final way of ascertaining the age of a tree but can be used on tree stumps of fellow species in the area to see how far out our estimations are. The Dendrochronology method involves counting light (spring/summer growth) and dark (summer/autumn growth), so one year will consist of both a light and a dark ring.

Circumference at Breast Height (CBH) - A means to estimate a tree's age

There are a number of non-invasive methods for estimating the age of a tree, the best bit is you can do it very simply using items you probably have lying around in your own home. You will need:

  • A tape tape-measure or long piece of string and a regular tape measure (may be useful for larger trees.)
  • Notepad, pencil and maybe a calculator (depending on your mental maths skills)  
  • A little knowhow 

Circumference at Breast Height (CBH) gives you the information you need for one such method, but how do we find a tree's CBH? In the UK the standard height off the ground for this measurement is 1.3m. Be sure to avoid any cankers or abnormal growths, instead measure at the point nearest to the 'normal' section of the trunk, if the trunk forks measure below the fork at a uniform section of the trunk. 

Trees have different growth rates depending on species and conditions so the next thing we need to work out for a more accurate estimation of the age of the tree is these two factors. Below is a table of growth estimates (per year) by tree species:

Tree Species  Annual Growth Rate (AGR)(Girth) 
Oak 1.88cm/yr
Beech, Ash, Elm and Hazel (& Most trees) 2.5cm/yr
Sycamore  2.75cm/yr
Holly and Yew  1.25cm/yr
Spruce and Pine 3.13cm/yr

So now we have the growth rates for various species we will find around Warley Woods, if a tree is not listed a good average growth rate is 2.5cm/yr, if you know a tree is more slow-growing reduce the growth rate slightly or vice-versa.

Let's try a worked example, imagine we found an oak tree and found its CBH to be 215cm, we know from the table above that Oaks AGR is around 1.88cm/yr so to estimate the age of this tree we would do the following calculation (CBH/AGR=Estimated Age):

  • 215cm/1.88cm=114.36 So we can estimate this tree to be around 114 years old

In reality, tree ageing is a little more complicated than this as trees have different stages of growth the method above gives a decent estimate on the age of a tree, but to get an even more accurate estimate we need to understand the stages of tree development.

Trees have three main stages to their growth:

  • Formative Stage - Growth is slow at first as the tree gets established, but as the canopy expands the tree begins to grow at a quickening pace until the canopy is fully developed.  
  • Mature Stage - Once the optimum crown size is reached the plant food from the leaves is likely to stabilise and therefore we enter a period of constant and fairly uniform growth (conditions and pests aside). Yearly growth is spread over an ever-increasing area which leads to a reduction in tree ring width.
  • Senescence Stage - As the tree ages it may sustain canopy damage, branches snap in storms or begin to die back, disease and pathogens can start acting readily on the tree. With reduced canopy cover comes less growth, what growth the tree gets is spread ever more thinly over the ever-expanding area, the tree is in decline.  

The final Sensecece stage is the rarest, this is particularly true in urban areas where high footfall usually means that trees are felled before ever reaching it due to health and safety concerns. Veteran trees cannot easily or simply be replaced, they take generations to form and sadly they are being lost at a rate far greater than they are forming. 

"Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single, living organism"  - David Attenborough 

Trees do not have to be massively old to have the benefits of Veteran trees, many of our trees here at Warley Woods though nowhere near 'ancient' have some of the associated hallmark traits and habitats. Here at Warley Woods, we manage our trees responsibly trying to maximise the deadwood habitat we have on-site, you have probably seen some of our standing deadwood columns and dead trees that rather than being totally felled have been reduced down to ensure we keep our patrons safe whilst also providing habitat for our wildlife.   

Can you help Warley Woods Community Trust manage our ancient woodland by making a one-off donation? We are a community-run park and rely on donations to be able to help maintain our Warley Woods!

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