Telling about top trees in Borders woods

Borders Forest Trust. Heritage tree trail, Diane Bennett.
Borders Forest Trust. Heritage tree trail, Diane Bennett.

WHEN it comes to discovering rare examples of flora and fauna, most people will think you would have to travel to unexplored spots in the Earth’s most dense rainforests or to the bottom of the oceans.

But not so, says Diane Bennett, who recently completed a two-year project to survey and catalogue some of the Borders’ most ancient trees. She believes there are still magnificent examples out there waiting to be found.

Diane led the Borders Forest Trust’s Heritage Tree Trail project which has ended. One result has been a leaflet and the creation of a special trail, allowing people to see for themselves some of the region’s oldest trees.

With a rich and diverse landscape of great historic interest and beauty, the Borders bears the marks of centuries of human intervention.

Hidden within this landscape are sentinels – trees of such age that they have witnessed everything from Scotland’s medieval Wars of Indepedence to the industrial revolution.

Some of these amazing specimens are in the final cycles of their lives, while others are just coming into their prime.

The object of the heritage trees project was to track down these special trees, survey them, log their details on a database and include them in a leaflet showing readers how to find them.

“The leaflet was only able to contain a selection of some of the most accessible heritage trees. Many others were on private land or not easy to get to,” Diane told TheSouthern this week.

“We had a small team of volunteers who did some sterling work locating, surveying and collating the information on these trees for the Ancient Tree Hunt database.

“But there are plenty more fantastic ancient trees out there, just waiting to be found.”

Diane says such trees have an important role to play in our landscape. She told us: “The sentimental aspect apart, these trees have been points of landscape continuity for hundreds of years. They support a whole community of invertebrates, which in turn support bird and animal life.

“They are a fixed point on the landscape – migrating birds may have stored their locations in their memories as larders to stop at and feed or as a place to rest. They are vitally important features of our countryside.”

The new tree trail traverses roughly west to east across the Borders countryside and among the trees detailed is one that could be the oldest in the Borders.

Located in the grounds of Dryburgh Abbey, this mighty yew is believed to have been planted in 1136 by monks.

It was Capuchin monks, on their way to Jedburgh Abbey, who are believed to have planted the famous Capon Tree, a sessile oak, beside the Jed Water at Hundalee on the outskirts of the town.

Planted in 1725 by Sir James Naysmith, the Dawyck larch at Dawyck Botanic Gardens in Peeblesshire, may well be the oldest larch in Scotland.

The Glenkinnon Oak at Clovenfords is more than 300 years old, while the Colvin Tree – a sweet chestnut in the gardens of Bemersyde House – is thought to date from the 12th century.

These are just a few examples of the incredible trees included in the leaflet and trail. There may be others, even older or bigger, but almost unknown, and still to be discovered.

“My favourite is probably the Capon Tree,” Diane said. “But, being based at the osprey project at Kailzie, I am also very fond of some of the incredible trees at Kailzie Gardens.

“Apart from size, what people need to look for when trying to establish whether a tree is really old is a significantly wide girth, with a hollow trunk and straggling branches.

“It may also be squat and it may have shed much of its upper crown during this phase of its life cycle. It can go on for a few more hundred years in this condition.

“The hollowing out is a way for the tree to ensure a stronger structure and dead branches in the crown may give what’s called a ‘stag-headed’ look.

“There might also be holes in the trunk, providing an important habitat for wildlife, limbs may have broken off and there could be fungi and lichen growing on it.”

As well as the environmental significance of such trees, Diane says they hold a special place in local folklore and history.

“Heritage trees are often of historical and cultural value – marking a site of historical importance, for example. Or they may be the site of myths and legends.

“Just think if such trees could talk – what stories they would tell us. What amazing sights they might have borne witness to over the centuries.”

For more information about these and other remarkable trees and woodland projects, visit websites for the Ancient Tree Hunt – www.ancienttreehunt.org.uk – and Borders Forest Trust – www.bordersforesttrust.org

Heritage Tree Trail leaflets are available from Borders tourist information centres, by calling the Borders Forest Trust office on 01835 830750 or by emailing enquiries@bordersforesttrust.org