Dalkeith named Heritage Tree Hotspot as experts record 500 “Living Legends”

Monday September 18th 2023

Dalkeith named Heritage Tree Hotspot

From left to right, Conar Gow (Park Staff), Clair McFarlan, Keith Knight, Judy Dowling.

Written by Midlothian View Reporter, Luke Jackson

Dalkeith Country Park in Midlothian has been revealed as a heritage tree hotspot after experts recorded 500 ancient, veteran and notable oaks over the last year.

Many of the trees may be descended from a single giant called “The Michael” and are thought to have been planted to funnel deer towards aristocratic hunters.

Details of the trees are to be included on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory which maps the oldest and most important trees in the UK.

Ten Woodland Trust Scotland volunteers completed the marathon mission to measure, photograph and log exact GPS locations over the course of 14 recording days, with oversight from Scotland’s lead ancient tree verifiers Keith Knight and Clair McFarlan.

Just over 500 trees were recorded, nearly all of them stunning and characterful pedunculate oaks. 100 were deemed ancient, 300 veteran and 100 notable.*

It is unusual in Scotland to have so many remarkable oaks in one place. It is more usual to find a single spectacular tree on its own in the landscape. The Dalkeith group is one of three hotspots hosting heritage oaks by the hundred – the others being the Cadzow oaks in South Lanarkshire and the Lochwood oaks at Annandale in Dumfries and Galloway.

Keith Knight said: “It is likely the trees were planted hundreds of years ago as a way of managing deer for hunting. The Lords and Ladies would all come out from Holyrood. Deer would be driven into the strip of land where the North and South Esk rivers converge. Trees planted along the edge would block their escape.”

The oldest and biggest oak on the site is known as “The Michael” which is probably a corruption of the Scots word “meikle” meaning big – although some also link the oak to the 16th Century sailing ship The Michael which was the largest vessel afloat at the time. The Michael oak would have already been an imposing tree at the time The Michael ship put to sea from Newhaven in the 1500s.

The Michael oak has multiple stems and may be the result of more than one sapling being planted together. It has a remarkable girth of 10.3m at 0.8m up the trunk and could be up to 1000 years old. It is thought a lot of the other oaks on the site are its offspring or descendants.

The Dalkeith oaks were once difficult for casual visitors to find, but since 2016 there has been a 2.4km waymarked trail taking in many of the trees.

According to Park Manager Ross Mason the Old Wood purple trail is amongst the most popular walks with visitors.

“I have to give credit to all the Woodland Trust Volunteers who kept coming back to help tackle the mammoth task of documenting all these trees over the months,” he said. “On the plus side it is always nice to spend the day in the woods with people who all have a genuine passion for these trees and nature in general.”

George Anderson of Woodland Trust Scotland said: “Old oaks are terrific for supporting lots of other wildlife. Many birds and mammals will make use of the nooks and crannies in a craggy old tree, and deadwood is essential to the life cycle of many insects and fungi.

“These Dalkeith ancients are well cared for thanks to Ross and his colleagues but sadly not all venerable old trees are in such safe hands.

“Ancient trees are as much a part of our heritage as stately homes, cathedrals and works of art, but they don’t get the same protection. Our campaign to Protect our Living Legends has already collected over 50,000 signatures petitioning all UK Governments to do better.”

*Ancient, Veteran, and Notable

An ancient tree is in the third and final stage of its life. How old an ancient tree is depends on the species. Some species can live longer than others with yews, oaks and sweet chestnuts topping the age charts at over 1000 years. Other species, including birch and willow, live shorter lives.

A veteran tree is usually in the second or mature stage of life. It will have some of the features found on an ancient tree but won’t have the great age. Although they are not as old as ancient trees, they’re still incredibly important.

Notable trees are usually mature trees which may stand out in the local environment because they are large in comparison with other trees around them.

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