My partner in crime writing, Julia, met a man recently who could be termed a bit of a ‘tree hugger’! But it is not as daft as it sounds as you will find out…
“Look at that – absolutely perfect!” It’s a blustery afternoon and I am standing in a field on the edge of the moorland town of Chagford, with Mike Palmer, one of the Dartmoor National Park’s volunteer Tree Wardens. And Mike is a very happy man.
“A prefect specimen! Look at the shape of it – lovely!” Mike is almost hopping up and down with excitement as he rummages in his rucksack for a piece of string to measure the size of the tree’s trunk.
As tall as a house, its canopy spreading wide above us, it is a very beautiful oak. The bark is incredible, twisted, deeply ridged and speckled with lichen. How many years has this magnificent tree stood here, I wonder?
Estimating the age of a tree is more art than science. Having measured a metre and a half up from the base of the tree, Mike asks me to hold one end of the string while he disappears around the other side of the trunk.
With age, the height and spread of a tree reach a maximum, and then decline. So this means it’s really difficult to estimate the age of a tree but as the trunk itself increases in circumference throughout its life this can be used as a measure of age.
Mike, re-appears next to me and marks where the two pieces of string meet, and then we measure it. We guess the trunk is about 12 feet round, but it is actually 17ft! Most trees reach a point when fully mature, with a full crown, when the circumference is one inch for each year of growth. So a tree, like this one at 17 feet, measured at chest height, is over 200 years old. Wow!
“The trouble is, the only way to date a tree accurately is to cut it down and count the rings, which defeats the object really,” says Mike. He has a point!
Veteran trees are defined as: ‘Trees which, by virtue of their great age, size or condition, are of exceptional value culturally, in the landscape or for wildlife’.
Veteran trees are a link to our past and have stood for many hundreds of years. Some veteran trees are well known such as the Meavy oak on the south side of Dartmoor, but there are many others, often in isolated locations, which have not been mapped. Tree Wardens with their local knowledge are ideally placed to locate these valuable trees.
“In general terms, you can say an oak will grown for 300 years, rest for 300 years and then decline gracefully for 300 years. Often, the crown will die and blow down which can make the rest of the tree grow even more vigorously,” says Mike.
A dead tree is also of enormous value, he adds. Often supporting over 100 different species of insects, mammals and fungi, it puts a great deal back into the environment as it rots away. We would do well to take more notice of trees.
Now thoroughly chilled in the late afternoon, Mike and I set off back to Chagford for a warming cup of coffee. As we start to thaw out, he tells me that he is a retired bank manager from Sussex who loves his new life and the chance to be outside for so much of the day rather than stuck behind a desk. I instantly think of a range of daft jokes about him becoming a different sort of branch manager, but decide I’d better just drink my coffee instead…