Veteran? Or not?

There is no doubt that some trees are of exceptional value. The biodiversity supported by ancient and veteran trees is unique in many ways. England is host to many such trees, mostly oak, but also yew, sweet chestnut and others.

Figure 1: Ancient Oak at Cowdray, Midhurst
Tree Number 4426 in the Ancient Tree Inventory (Grid Ref: SU91252268)
Photo © Mark Welby

Retention and preservation

Where such specimens are identified, there can be no argument that their retention and preservation is paramount within our landscape as a vital and treasured asset.

Within the construction industry and our planning process, such trees present significant constraints within development sites. The required protection buffers currently supported by emerging local policies, supplementary planning guidance, Natural England and the National Planning Policy Framework mean that where they are retained within new housing the landscape design and space afforded to them must be very carefully considered.  

Guidance clarity

Recent projects have brought to light the lack of clarity within the current guidance.  There are fundamental differences between a tree in terminal decline or one decayed to the point of collapse and a sustainable ancient or veteran tree. Do we need more data on the biodiversity offered by different species and its uniqueness or rarity? Whilst a large poplar with cavities and decay may well appear to meet several veteran criteria, does it ‘measure up’ in terms of botanical uniqueness and ecological value when compared to an oak? Maybe. Though, for what may be a comparatively short veteran phase (if this is even an appropriate term), to insist on its retention and the associated buffers, putting pressure on the other constraints on a site may be unreasonable.

Recently a project arose where the local authority was insisting a field maple was a veteran and must be retained, essentially sterilising a large area of the development site, with an 18m radius buffer (1018m2). The specialist survey method proposed by English Nature’s Veteran Tree Initiative was used in an attempt to discern ‘Veteran? Or not?’. When walking up to the tree, it appeared that it may well be a veteran. However, once the survey methodology was followed it became clear that although the tree had certain features associated with veteran trees, certain principal requirements like dieback in the crown, significant deadwood, the presence of fungi, and mammal habitat, were missing.

Reasonable resolutions

These words are an attempt to highlight the inconsistencies that can arise in current planning scenarios. It is critical that all professionals are on the same page and aware of the intrinsic differences between tree species, the practicalities of retaining them with the development site, the biodiversity offered by them, and are able to come to reasonable mutually agreeable resolutions.

The right skills and experience are critical. To help with this, tools are being developed to aid a measured approach, one of which is the VETcert project’s forthcoming Veteran Tree Management Standards.

So, whilst protection of those trees worthy of such is a given, let us make sure we are doing so for the right trees and reasons.

Mark Welby
DipArb(RFS), TechCert(ArborA), FArborA
Arboricultural Association Registered Consultant

A special thanks to Mark for his thought-provoking contribution to the terra firma blog.

Useful links:
– VETcert:
– Ancient Tree Forum:
– Ancient Tree Inventory:
– Natural England and Forestry Commission’s guidance:
– National Planning Policy Framework (clause 175):–2


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