She would never have dreamed of it a few years ago, but when lockdown came and she found herself separated from family and friends, “I’m not ashamed to say I hugged a tree or two if I was feeling sad,” says Jane Barber. “When you couldn’t hug people – and I didn’t have a partner at the time – it was really challenging for people who lived alone.
“We need connection, to feel connection with another living being. To connect with the tree’s history and reflect on what it might have witnessed is wonderful.”
Like many of those jogging, walking dogs or just meandering on a gloriously sun-dappled Friday morning in Hainault forest, near Romford in Essex, Barber is not someone who needs reminding of the value of ancient trees. “Would you like to see the Squire’s Oak?" ella pregunta, leading the way beneath the rustling, chirruping canopy to a venerable giant commanding a hill at the north-eastern edge of the forest.
“Anything and everything could have happened under this tree,” says Barber, a nursery nurse from Ilford. “Bandits and trading, farmers on the way to market … lovers meeting under the oak. Before we had Google Maps, this would have been our landmark.”
There are many such trees in these historic woods – at least 533 ancient hornbeams and oaks, according to the Woodland Trust, although another conservation body, the Ancient Tree Forum, has put the figure at between 3,000 y 4,000. Esto, the Trust said this week, is a pattern repeated across England, where the best existing estimate of ancient trees is now believed to be a dramatic undercount.
De acuerdo a un estudio by the Woodland Trust and the University of Nottingham, instead of the 115,000 ancient trees currently on record in England, there may be as many as 2.1 millón. These historic giants may stand majestically or half forgotten in a field, but whether they have sheltered kings or merely beetles, fungi and lichen, all need the same improved protection, the trust argues.
We have lost much of our sense of connection with these trees, says Emma Gilmartin, an ecologist and conservation adviser, “and personally, I think this speaks to a kind of cultural loss of connection with the landscape and with nature.
“These ancient trees can tell us so much about how we used to interact with the land. But because we don’t see them as having an economic worth, we have often lost that sense of wonder for them as well.”
The connection between people and the woodland in this part of Essex is a particularly close and ancient one. Many of the notable trees in Hainault forest – one of the last remnants of the ancient Forest of Essex – are hornbeams, which were pollarded for decades or even centuries. Local people had commoners’ rights to cut the branches for fodder or to make charcoal, which was particularly prized in this part of the county for the baking industry. Gnarled and nobbled, sometimes split or hollowing, their lumpy trunks are easy to spot throughout the forest.
Fearful of a post-Brexit watering down of protections in the government’s nature recovery green paper, the Woodland Trust is calling for a consistent system of protections that extends to all ancient trees, whether part of a cherished woodland or a neglected rural hedgerow.
"[As an organisation] we’ve realised that it’s not enough just to respond to the odd government consultation here and there and ask them nicely to protect trees better,” says Gilmartin. “Actually, what we want to do is to drive a cultural shift, which sets these [trees and woodlands] as fundamental to our quality of life.”
Many of those in Essex are firm believers already. Leigh Cole, who was raised in the area and now travels 50 minutes a day from Saffron Waldon to walk her dogs in Hainault, dice: “I’ve always loved this forest since my parents used to take us as kids.” Her mum, ella dice, would go up to a tree and wrap her arms around it, declaring that she could feel its warmth. “I’m not that bad, but I do really appreciate the trees, because they have been here for a long time.
“And anyway, we need trees to live, don’t we? They are the lungs of the world.”