Climate change and ancient trees

by Dec 8, 2023Conservation, Trees and plants

Columnist: Patricia Moxey, naturalist, ecologist and EFHT Trustee shares her knowledge about Epping Forest and the potential threats it is facing in the context of climate change. This article was first published in Epping Forest Heritage Trust’s Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of ‘Trust in the Forest’ magazine. 

The ancient trees within Epping Forest have experienced many decades of changes in weather pattens, storms, snowy winters, wet or dry summers
and periods of toxic sulphurous fumes which decimated the epiphytic lichens on their branches.

The current rapid warming of the atmosphere has increased the length of the growing season by a month with buds unfurling earlier in spring and a delay in the appearance of autumnal colours until mid-autumn.

The weather pattern this year has provided ideal conditions for a superabundance of fruits with large quantities of crab apples, hawthorn and holly berries, hornbeam fruits and another mast year for oak trees. 2020 and 2022 were also mast years, where acorns provided more than ample food for populations of small mammals such as mice and voles as well as grey squirrels, so their numbers increased. Their predators such as tawny owls or foxes had plenty to eat too. Jays cache many acorns in grassy areas, some will germinate to become future trees.

An ancient tree in Epping forest with broken branchesAn ancient tree with broken branches due to high winds in Epping Forest.

As the climate warms, there is the potential for more disruptive storms. High winds can break branches or topple root damaged trees completely. Such damaged wood is recycled by the actions of specialised fungi and deadwood invertebrates. The ancient trees of Epping Forest support a nationally outstanding assemblage of invertebrates including 66 Red Data threatened species. However, frequent dryer and hotter summers combined with the damaging impact of poor air quality from burning fossil fuels are impacting on their well-being. For over 30 years various studies have been undertaken to trial management techniques to support these ancient trees. Haloing around selected ancient oaks is proving to be successful as is the recutting of selected pollarded hornbeams. Some young trees are cut to create future pollards to ensure the continuity of the historic cultural landscape of Epping Forest.


About the author: Patricia Moxey B.Sc. Hons. FBNA: With a professional background in environmental education, Tricia’s work has been to encourage others to understand and engage with the natural world. She has been associated with Epping Forest for over 50 years, initially helping to establish the Field Centre at High Beach, where she became enthralled with the complexity of the Forest’s history and ecology. In 1992, she joined the City of London staff at the Warren as Information Officer for Epping Forest.

Ancient tree trials: You can visit some of the most iconic ancient trees following two waymarked trails from City of London Corporation.

The Ancient Tree Forum also has Veteran Tree Trails in Epping Forest, These Self-guided trails have been devised at each site to allow people to visit and see for themselves the work that has been undertaken to safeguard veteran trees on these sites. You can find out more here: Epping Forest | Ancient Tree Forum