I spent last weekend in the company of, among others, a 400-year old called Bob.
400 years is a lot of years—something we can rarely grasp when thinking about trees.
To put Bob’s antiquity into perspective, 1621 saw the invention of these things called ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Gothenburg’, ‘the violin’ and ‘the merry-go-round’. John Donne and Thomas Middleton were still breathing; Shakespeare had only just kicked the bucket. The Palace of Versailles and bottled mineral water did not yet exist; the Royal Mail was still exactly that—for royal use only.
400 years is a long time to be alive.
But did you notice that cleared ground around Bob’s feet? That’s the result of something called ‘halo-release’. As trees age, they become less tolerant of shade and so rangers at Bob’s home on Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns are thinning out the canopy competition around the oldest residents of the forest.
400 years is a long time to be alive but, remarkably, halo-release could extend Bob’s life by another hundred years or so.
Imagine still being alive in 2121.
In a few weeks, we’ll all be gawping in admiration at the sweat and tears of the planet’s fastest, strongest athletes at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. In the summer of 2121, Bob’s Oak will still be around to hear the synthesised pants and grunts of the artificial athlete robots competing in the LVII Olympiad taking place on Moonbase One.
A lot can happen in a hundred years.
Halo-release costs about £500 per tree. You might think that’s incredible value for a century’s life extension. But there are an estimated one thousand veteran and ancient trees in the Ashridge Estate woodland and £500 per tree escalates fast.
It’s no small irony that Ashridge Estate is in the heart of the territory being stripped to make way for HS2, the new high speed railway line between London and Birmingham.
Research by the Woodland Trust has found that 108 ancient woods—and untold numbers of trees like Bob’s Oak—will be damaged or felled during the construction of the railway.
Although HS2 Ltd. are committed to planting seven million trees and shrubs to mitigate the environmental devastation, there is no quick fix for the loss of 400 years’ growth. Can you imagine a world without bottled mineral water, Gothenburg and the merry-go-round? Exactly.
Ancient trees are special in ways that ecologists are barely beginning to understand. One example: ancient trees are a critical part of ecosystems that sequester more carbon than young growth forests.
The Woodland Trust’s State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 report found that Britain’s ancient woodlands store 36 percent of our tree-bound carbon, despite only making up only 25 percent of our forest cover.
The government itself recognises that these ancient woodlands are ‘irreplaceable’ and yet here we are.
Earlier this year, famously, I bought a car. That doesn’t stop me thinking that cars are a pretty selfish way of getting around—often one that we are forced into, rather than freely choosing, because of a lack of viable alternatives.
We need to invest heavily in low or zero carbon public transport. The budget for HS2 now stands at £98 billion, so I can’t say that money isn’t being spent… But the Woodland Trust put the contradiction plainly:
Any transport system that destroys irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland can never be called ‘green’.
Side story: When I realised how close our expedition was to the HS2 felling sites, I had the fine idea to walk the entire railway route and document what we are losing. Then I discovered that Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2 did exactly that last year.
Stop HS2 is full of terrifically depressing news, such as the felling of the woods that inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, despite serious doubts over the legality of the licenses issued by Natural England.