Hi-tech salvation for ancient oaks

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THEY are thought to have taken root way back in the 15th century when the War of the Roses was effectively brought to an end with the death of Richard III.

But very modern methods have been used to ensure that the most important area of oak trees in the north of England is set to be preserved for generations to come.

Satellite tracking devices have been employed to map out the exact locations of hundreds of the veteran oaks, which rank alongside the ancient trees of Sherwood Forest, as part of a conservation project spanning the past two decades.

And Natural England officials have now confirmed the 345 acres woodland on the fringes of the North York Moors National Park have been awarded protected status. The decision to designate the wood as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) has been heralded as vital to ensuring the future of the centuries-old trees.

The woodland at Castle Hill Deer Park, near Helmsley, had previously harboured two much smaller SSSIs which covered almost 40 acres, but these have now been absorbed into the wider protected area.

A forester at the Forestry Commission, Nick Short, said: “We welcome this move to grant protected legal status to a much greater area, which underlines the value of the long term restoration work we are doing and our management of wildlife habitats.

“This is a fantastic place of outstanding national significance with a priceless ecosystem. But it is also an irreplaceable asset and enshrining protection over a much greater area is good news for biodiversity and for future generations.”

The Forestry Commission has undertaken the restoration of nearly 20 acres of the fragile habitat by slowly removing conifers such as western hemlock planted in the 1970s and allowing native trees to regenerate. Conifers on the site initially made it difficult to find and map the ancient trees and orienteers were even used to penetrate the woodland and discover the ancient specimens.

A little over a decade ago national tree expert Ted Green, from Windsor Great Park, deployed GPS devices to fix the location of up to 450 veteran trees. The area was re-surveyed in 2006 using funding from the environmental organisation, the SITA Trust, and the North York Moors National Park Authority leading to further discoveries.

Mr Short said: “We now know that we have 511 veteran trees, of which 80 per cent are alive and potentially capable of regenerating. A similar percentage are oaks. That means our hopes of nurturing new native cover in areas planted with conifers within the SSSI have a solid foundation.”

Some of the Deer Park’s oaks could have put down roots when Richard III, the last and most controversial Yorkist King, was killed more than 500 years ago at the battle of Bosworth Field, in 1485.

Other ancient specimens of small leaved lime and streamside alder are also present in the ancient woodland.

The woodland is also a major hotspot for bats, which are on the European Protected Species list. The conservation work undertaken over the past 20 years had initially begun because experts realised the potential importance of the trees for animals such as bats.

Lead conservation and land management adviser for the North York Moors at Natural England Dave Clayden said: “Part of the site has been managed as wood-pasture for centuries, perhaps as far back as Norman times and probably linked to Helmsley Castle, when the land was used for deer hunting.

“This is a one of the most significant sites of its kind anywhere in England and oaks of this age and concentration are extremely rare in the UK.

“The trees represent a huge resource in combination with a similar veteran population on the adjacent Duncombe Park SSSI and represent habitat conditions of the ancient wildwood with a preponderance of deadwood. Expanding the designated area is a natural step forward and takes account of the hard work done by the Forestry Commission and the estate.”

paul.jeeves@ypn.co.uk