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Quaking giants

Taking pictures of ancient trees allows us to share and document their connection to our past – and preserve their place in our future

Send your photos of ancient trees to our Flickr group

In the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle there is a sycamore tree on a patch of green, just a short stroll from a pub. This gnarled old tree is a key player in a compelling story. It is here that a group of agricultural labourers met to discuss demands for better pay, in effect creating the first ever trade union. The rest is history. Already more than 150 years old when the labourers met under this tree in the 1830s, it's still going strong with loving help.

Ancient trees with rich tales can be found across the UK. They are the silent witnesses to the story of these isles that we live on.

But how do we know what an ancient tree is? An ancient tree is one which is very old in comparison with other trees of the same species. There is no strict definition as to what age a tree must be to be considered ancient, but a 600-year-old oak tree or 300-year-old beech tree would qualify. Yew trees can live for several thousand years and oak and sweet chestnut for 1,000 years or more.

From the symbolic and much-loved oak to the majestic beech, trees connect us to our past and will be here for future generations to enjoy. They have provided us with shelter and played a key part in powering the expanding military and fuelling the industrial revolution.

They have played a key part in our history. It was under a yew tree at Runnymede in Berkshire that the Magna Carta was signed. A flower of Kent apple tree in the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire proved decisive in Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravity.

In many ways they are taken for granted. Unlike our built heritage with its listings status and preservation orders, ancient trees have no such protection. They remain potentially vulnerable to damage and neglect.

The National Trust is currently carrying out an audit of all its ancient trees, thought to number around 40,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This data will then be fed into the Ancient Tree Hunt which will provide us with, for the first time ever, a clear picture of where these titans of nature can be found.

This island really is a superpower when it comes to its ancient trees. We escaped the ravages of conflict that blighted mainland Europe in the 20th century and many of our older trees have survived the race to modernise. It's hard to imagine our countryside without these wise old trees.

Stand next to any ancient tree and you get that sense of wonder at the sights and sounds it will have witnessed down the generations. They provide a sense of reassurance, majesty and power. These trees have been the centre of communities down the ages as places to gather and their loss is something that affects everyone.

Capturing these wonders of the natural world on camera has endless possibilities. Their location and prominence in the landscape can create moody and atmospheric pictures. Whether they are in a church yard, one of many in parkland or isolated in a farmer's field. Close–up shots will find a deeper meaning in their bark and the creatures, such as beetles and woodpeckers that call them home or the fungi and lichen that cling to their trunks and branches.

It's also worth thinking of taking pictures of ancient trees in the same way as portraiture photography. They all have their own unique characteristics and can create wonderful and iconic images.

There is something really special about ancient trees which captivates and intrigues us. Taking photographs of these figures in the landscape allows us to share and document what they mean to society.

Send your photos of ancient trees to our Flickr group

Brian Muelaner is the National Trust's ancient tree adviser. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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