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Ancient Beauty

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Trees are a dominant feature on golf courses around the country, a vast array of species, Oak, Sycamore, Beach, Lime to name a few of the common species and others like the Monkey Puzzle, Wych Elm and Norway Maple. They provide food and Shelter for birds and other animals. Many golf courses are home to Ancient Trees, as the name suggests, they are very old trees living for hundreds if not thousands of years. John o Gaunt has 1 such tree as seen in the photos above & below. an Ancient Oak approx. 600 years old, scarred by lightning many years ago, lots of holes and crevices for all sorts of wildlife to thrive in. The tree is huge as you can see in the photos.

James Hutchinson is the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association’s (BIGGA) Membership Services Manager for Sustainability and Ecology. He is a man passionate about trees. He spoke to me about some of the Ancient and Veteran Trees he has come across in his travels around the UK.

As a golf course environmental manager, and one who has worked with Stephen on numerous occasions, I see the good and bad management practices that go on throughout the UK’s 2600 courses. I will, however, suggest at this point that bad ecological management is almost a thing of the past, and, if you’re looking for wildlife, then your local golf course is likely to have more than the majority of its surrounding environs (mono-culture farmland, housing, industry etc…).

One of the habitats that we have a good amount of is veteran and ancient trees, similar to the beautiful old oak at John 0 Gaunt – I visit about 100 parkland courses per year, and I am quite happy to report that most have an oldie growing contently onsite. A good example to start with is the ‘Leper Oak’ at Hexham GC, Northumberland, so called as there used to be a monastery nearby; the monks left food underneath the boughs for the adjacent leper colony, hence the name of the tree.

This beautiful old oak is full of decaying timber, moss, lichens, liverworts and as a result, many different types of fauna can be found either feeding or nesting in the cracks and fissures. As the centre and most of the trunk has long gone (to take a core and count the rings, or for Carbon-14 samples), and the fact that it is almost impossible to now measure the true girth, who knows how old the tree is? What’s left is approximately 8 meters at the waist suggesting upwards of 700 years old. Quite the mystery which only adds to the majesty of the tree.

Another example, or collection of examples, can be found at The Hertfordshire golf course, Broxbourne. Sweet chestnuts to 10 meters in girth can be found, along with gnarly oaks and yews. The centrepiece of this special course is the chestnut which can be found adjacent to the clubhouse, but it’s the numerous decaying old oaks which really catch the eye of a tree hugger like me. Similar to the Leper Oak, the centres have long since departed, possibly by lightning strikes and other such trauma’s, but it is the cork cambium (layers of bark) which have begun to regrow that impresses me the most with cases like The Hertfordshire - I think it’ll be another century before they eventually join up to create a hollow cylinder though. Nevertheless, the habitats in these trees are truly impressive.

In terms of management, greenkeepers tend to leave these trees to their own devices rather than to tidy them up. On occasion, some must have a haircut for health and safety reasons, which is exactly what Stoneleigh Golf Course has done. The majority of their 7 - 9 metre oaks are ‘in play’ therefore greenkeeping tasks, golf traffic and general foot traffic pass beneath the limbs daily. The team ‘coronet cut’ the dead timber to make it look like the natural decaying process, or to look like the limb has simply snapped off.

Stoneleigh, and all the other courses that have veterans and ancients, aerate the turf beneath via a number of methods including hollow tinning, spiking and air injection – this gives both the grass and the tree the ability to breath and as such adds longevity to all involved. It was realised that, when the ill looking Turner’s Oak at Kew Gardens was blown from its foundations in the storm of 1997, and then fell back in again, all that was needed for the tree was air – foot traffic created compaction around the base thus the poor tree had respiratory issues. Aeration is something we have practiced since the dawn of greenkeeping and probably saved these beautiful old golf course trees from demise.

Finally, Willesley Park Golf Course in Ashby de la Zouch made me aware of a tree that was so large and knobbly that I “had to come and see it…and bring your tape measure” was suggested! I have seen hundreds of 5, 6 and 7 metre girthed trees on golf courses including a 10-meter oak, but none prepared me for the sight I encountered at Willesley.

After fighting through brambles, scrub and small pioneer birch, the greenkeeper’s and I were faced with a sweet chestnut so magnificent it took my breath away – I blamed the fighting through scrub, but they didn’t believe me. NOTE: It was decided that the tree should be seen rather than hidden away so the small birch around the base have been removed. Also, the tree was beginning to lose the all-important sunlight to the upper canopy, which wasn’t very high given the now stunted growth of the tree. To cut a long story short, we measured 11.5 metres at approximately one metre up suggesting maybe a millennium old. There are probably older chestnuts here in the UK, but I am yet to hug one as gnarly, warty and downright appealing as this golf course beauty.

Photos show some of the Ancient trees James has visited including the 1000 year old Sweet Chestnut. at Willesley Park Golf Course in Leicestershire. It truly is a giant.

My final words:

Ancient trees are history in the present, A living breathing ecosystem. They fire your imagination about what happened in the past, what they lived through and the changes they have seen. If you have an ancient tree on a golf course or parkland near you, take a closer look at it, appreciate its beauty and give it a hug.

Some useful links for more information on Ancient Trees and trees on golf courses.

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