Guest blog – Tree Blindness by Ian Parsons

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Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees.  Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura.  For more details see www.griffonholidays.com

 

 

 

Are you Tree-blind?  That may seem like a silly question, but I think it is a condition that afflicts many conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that trees are highly valued by probably all of you reading this blog, and I am well aware you will correctly recognise that they are vital parts of our ecosystems.  The thing is, can you identify them?  Do you know your Sessile Oak from your Pendunculate Oak, can you recognise a Silver Birch from a Downy Birch?

All four species are native to Britain and all are very common, but my experience of working in the wildlife industry has shown me that many people, even ‘conservation professionals’ don’t know the difference between them.  We wouldn’t dream of confusing a Great Tit with a Blue Tit, but we are forever calling Downy Birch Silver Birch.

The topic of tree-blindness was highlighted earlier this year, when I was, like several million other people, watching Springwatch.  Now Springwatch is a great program and has done a lot to make the general public so much more aware of the brilliant wildlife that this country has.  That’s a good thing and one that I wholeheartedly support.  But, sadly, it too exhibits the symptoms of Tree-blindness.  One of the presenters, I won’t embarrass them, was stood talking about heathland when they referred to the trees behind them as ‘firs’.  The trees weren’t members of the Fir family, they were members of the Pine family, infact they were Scots Pine.  Now many of you are probably thinking that I am just being pedantic (I often am it has to be said!) and that I am just splitting hairs.  But Pines are very different from Firs, what would you say if the same presenter had been talking about the scrapes at Minsmere and had referred to an Avocet as a Gull?  Because that is kind of what they did.  You wouldn’t expect that sort of mistake to happen with birds, mammals, reptiles, even fish, but when it happens with trees, no one seems to notice.

The thing is, Britain is packed full of brilliant trees, trees we should all get to know.  Did you know Britain has it’s very own endemic species, found nowhere else on the planet?  Didn’t think so.  For some reason our wildlife organisations and wildlife programs just never mention them. They are tree-blind.  All across Britain we have endemic Whitebeam species, there are dozens of them, we have Devon Whitebeam, through to Lancastrian Whitebeam and on to Arran Whitebeam just to name three.  Their biology is complicated, but they have all evolved to fill local niches and therefore only occupy small localised areas, sometimes just one valley.  They are found nowhere else on the planet.

Can you imagine the fuss that would be made if your area was the only place on the planet to see a species of bird or butterfly or orchid?  It would rightly be celebrated by all, programs would be made about it, people would flock to see it from all around.  But for our native endemic Whitebeams not a squeak is heard.  My favourite tree in the world is the brilliantly named No Parking Whitebeam, it is one of our endemics and is found growing in one small area of North Devon.  There are just over 100 of them growing in the entire world, and my favourite one is growing right on the edge of a car parking space alongside the main road.  This isn’t a tree that that you have to go trekking miles to see, you can just park up, get out of your car and there it is in all its glory.

no-parking-whitebeam

There is no sign, no placard to tell you that you are looking at something really special. No real surprise I suppose, until you consider that the land that the tree is on, in fact all the No Parking Whitebeams in the entire world are on the same estate, belongs to the National Trust, a conservation organisation.  Worse still, the car park is used by their visitors to visit the property itself, the path leads right by the tree.  Hundreds, thousands of people walk right by it and yet there is nothing to introduce this fabulously rare tree to any of them.  I don’t want to single out the National Trust as they do a very good job, but I do find it very hard to understand why they aren’t celebrating something that no other land owner in the world can celebrate.

Trees are brilliant, they are special and we in Britain have some really unique ones that need our protection, they are irreplaceable.  We can’t protect them if we are tree-blind though, so shrug off the blinkers and get to know our trees.  Learn to spot a Downy Birch, it is really easy.  Oh, and if Springwatch are wondering what British wildlife to cover next series, why not start with some of our unique endemic trees, surely they deserve the recognition.

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37 Comments

  1. Norman McCanch says:

    Excellent! I thought I was the only person who got riled by this sort of thing; pedant maybe (glad to be one) but there is so much that needs to be recognised and appreciated before we lose it all.

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  2. Marian says:

    Ian is right - I thought I knew a fair number of tree species, but the uniqueness of these Whitebeams was quite unknown to me.

    Thanks, Ian, very interesting.

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  3. Les Wallace says:

    Brilliant post Ian. I know it's not the same thing really, but the reluctance organisations have in making any effort to point out to the public that dead wood, both standing and fallen is vital for biodiversity and ecological health of woodlands is what gets me. Last night I resigned from the committee of a local group I've been a member of for about seven years. Although I helped design a display in a park they funded which stressed how wildlife needs dead wood in land AND water, at their AGM in which they also received a major award, they told the attendees they were removing it from the river (so rubbish wouldn't snag on it, would just go straight downstream and then into estuary) and the fuel for fires in their bush skills training courses came from cutting down dead wood - a school pupil's voice over told us the latter in a video presentation.

    I wasn't the only person disturbed by this, the ecological value of dead wood was hardly being highlighted. Trees are highly valued in one sense and totally undervalued in others. Typically define the success of a project by how many trees you plant - so a ludicrous number get whacked into a small parcel of land. No shrubs, wild flowers and habitat piles, just lots and lots of a limited range of native tree species, tubed, staked and then fenced off. Result a few years down the line a sickly stand of spindly saplings jostling for space with absolutely no ground flora in the dreary, dank space below them. This is still the standard planting, the trees are reduced to some form of conservation currency - 'the project planted 8,500 trees' etc - so quantity over quality and no appreciation for the individual tree. And you are right Ian, tree IDing is very poor. Mine isn't great at all, but often it's still better than that of many naturalists whose field skills are otherwise much better than mine.

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  4. Lorraine Miller says:

    What a great blog, treemendous! It's true we don't know enough about our trees and I am just as guilty.

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  5. john Miles says:

    I love Sycamore. Many plants in the UK are on the British list for being here for only a short time so why not this noble tree over 1000 years in the UK? [Sweet Chesnut is thought to be 2000 years old brought here by the Romans!] For example New Zealand Willowherb all over our uplands! Sounds British to me!!!

    Sure the Sycamore can spread its seed and become dominant in some woods but its timber is very valuable and grown in the right place helps conservation. It is tolerant of salt and with so many diseases removing our 'natives' what will be left!

    It provides a bio mass of food even if it is only 1 species - green fly! Ask the migrants on the east coast which tree they prefer blown in on a cold east wind. And the Wood Warblers that used to nest at Haweswater before they were all cut down! And then there are the mighty trees grown in the uplands as shelter. Not forgetting the best leave litter in Britain providing lots of food for species like Woodcock.

    So 'Tree blindness' may not be just in ID but knowledge of what trees do in the wider landscape. One little point - Scots Fir is an old name for Scots Pine!

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    • Northern Diver says:

      Thanks for standing up for the sycamore. It's a tough tree - can cope with growing on colliery spoil and other toxic ex-industrial sites - also copes well with exposure. What with Dutch Elm Disease; Oak Death and Ash Die-Back we should keep our mature sycamores in case they are all we have left!

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  6. Paul Fisher says:

    Ian, guilty as charged. I love trees but don't really know trees. Agree that much more could be done to promote them. Dare I say it, even on moorland. As so often, the education is just not there.
    Great post. Hope the NT picks up on it.

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  7. Nick Moyes says:

    Totally agree with this perspective. (I like the one named after my former University lecturer - Proctor's Whitebeam.) But sadly, there is another kind of tree that was once very common but is rarely seen nowadays across our intensively managed and flail-mown countryside - and that's young hedgerow trees.

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  8. Apus Apus says:

    Trees are great! Ignorance within UK conservation actually extends into direct persecution, as trees are cut down to create create/maintain secondary landscapes, such as heath or coppiced as part of woodland gardening.

    "Managed woods reflect too simplistically our own limited skills and horizons. Wild, unmanaged trees show us possibilities beyond our own cultural tunnel-vision".

    Richard Mabey

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  9. Bamboo says:

    Great blog. Trees need to be known and understood by more people. Same goes for all other forms of wildlife and plants too. Education is key and many schools hardly touch on the environment!

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  10. So good to hear it for the trees. Thank you Ian. Being a member of the The Woodland Trust is another way to help with educating folk (and yourself, if you need it) about our wonderful - and desperately important - tree life. I often find this is a birders' crime: the bird spotted is often "in that bush/tree next to the .... " To identify the hawthorn, or the elder, or the goat willow, or whatever, would make things so much easier. And when we can name something, we have more ownership, and are therefore more likely to protect.

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  11. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Well spoken Ian! Not so much failing to see the wood for the trees as failing to see the trees in the wood! Although I believe I am able to correctly identify most common trees correctly (but definitely ignorant of the finer points of Whitebeam ID!) I know that I am guilty of tending to see them as just the background on which the rest of the wildlife goes about its business and I am sure that many of us could make more effort in this respect.
    It would certainly be welcome if programmes such as Springwatch, and organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts could sometimes feature trees as the stars of the show instead of just incidental background. There was a very nice documentary on BBC Four a while back by George McGavin which focused on a year in the life of a single oak tree.

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  12. Wendy Birks says:

    I am reasonably knowledgeable when IDing trees and shrubs, however I've been making the effort to learn more tree species the past few years. Last year I surprised myself to discover that I had walked past Hornbeams many many times in my local country park, without even realising they were there! (I am not very tall so most of the leaves are over my head, a very poor excuse I know) And a few weeks ago I was walking along a road in my village and saw that the lime trees, which must have been planted by the local authority several years ago, were flowering. they, of course, were beautiful, and I wondered how many people had noticed. A few days later I walked past with my husband and asked him if he'd seen them. He hadn't! And yet every day you see a tree it is a little different from the day before. Leaves out a bit more, berries just that bit riper, patterns and texture on bark differ as it ages....... I used to work as a gardener and now it is on of my hobbies, I think maybe gardeners appreciate the day to day growth of plants more than the average person?

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  13. Anand Prasad says:

    Yes great blog but Pendunculate Oak and Sessile Oak aren't that easy to separate.

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  14. SG says:

    Excellent blog. Will be digging out my tree ID book to test and correct my tree blindness this weekend!

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  15. Yes, excellent writing by Ian, provoking some great comments too. I could identify very few trees until recently despite having lived and walked in Fineshade Wood for 25 years. It was only when the wood and the trees were suddenly threatened that I started to properly look up and learn more about them. Now it's great to be able the point out the Wild Service and the Spindle - and even to recognise the exotic conifers too. If my self-taught experience is anything to go by, trees must be one of the easiest classes of species to learn - I just wish I'd done it sooner!

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  16. Dytiscus says:

    Have you mapped those rare whitebeams in N Devon and told the NT that they have the world population? It may be that they don't know where all these trees actually occur (or that the local staff can confidently identify them, as only a handful of folks actually can for these micro-species).# Worth doing I feel?

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    • Tim Rich says:

      see Rich, T. C. G. & Cann, D. C. G. (2009). A survey of Sorbus species at Watersmeet, North Devon, September 2007. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science 140: 185-198.

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  17. Ian Parsons @Birder_Griffon says:

    Thanks for the above comments, glad you liked the blog. NT are aware of the trees thanks to some great work by others. I don't know why they aren't banging the drum about them though.

    Don't be Tree-Blind!

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  18. MK says:

    What a great post, thank you Ian (and Mark). Despite a lifelong love of trees I admit to a bit of blindness myself - lacking the confidence to tell silver and downy apart I tend to lump them as simply 'birch' - imagine if I did the same with blue, great and coal tits for example? (you could say I would make an, er, fool of myself ... let's leave it there!) And I really must learn my limes - the common hybrid one is a very different beastie from the mysterious pry (small leaved lime) or the even rarer large leaved lime (or linden) which have their unique place in our landscape who knows where.

    I loved the examples of the endemic whitebeams - many town dwellers will know this tree for its occasional presence in street planting but who would know of this 'real' life of individual rarity species grown wild? What of aspen, black poplar, wild pear, or the genuine crab apple? The beautiful and mysterious wild service tree? How can we possibly conserve them if we don't know what or where they are?

    There is another kind of 'tree blindness' more pernicious which seems to be hard at work airbrushing history and writing two of our most beautiful and treasured trees out of the story altogether. I speak of course of none other than ash and elm. Two small examples to illustrate:

    i) At a 'nature reserve' created by our local authority (more accurately plantation, but a nice one and clearly with good intentions towards wildlife in mond), they have erected some interpretation signs describing the history of the site. Nicely produced and very interesting, but including the following statement: "the trees planted were predominantly hawthorn, oak and field maple" (I'm writing this from memory, but that's the gist). Yet turn your head owl like through 360 degrees from that spot and the commonest tree planted is clearly ash! What an earth are they playing at? Is the appropriate response to ash dieback to pretend one of our greatest and most graceful native trees simply never existed? The dreaded dieback has arrived at the site but the majority of trees are still healthy; even if they weren't that's scarcely an excuse. A newsletter from a conservation charity ran a feature not long after the ash dieback 'story' broke on ancient trees on sites they own - surprisingly no examples of ash were given. Genuine co-incidence or redacting going on?

    ii) I recently bought an 'I-Spy Book of Trees' which said the following of English Elm: "Dutch Elm Disease has killed nearly all of the English Elms in the UK, and now there are only a few left in the area around Brighton in East Sussex." Presumably the residents of Edinburgh, Scarborough, the Isle of Man and the Scilly Isles weren't consulted about this as at least some of their surviving elms must be English. Anyway, I get 25 points for seeing one - well I reckon within a mile radius of where I write these words there are probably several thousand young elms, the majority of which are still alive and in good health. Not the several thousand mature elms there would have been in 1968 (although extend the radius to ten miles and I could find you a couple of hundred survivors). Let's for goodness sake get our facts right, even in a book that costs the princely sum of £2.50. The wonderful variety of elms so lovingly catalogued by Richard Hook Richens (and followed up by other writers such as Rackham) is still there - among them unique and irreplaceable forms akin to the whitebeams Ian describes. Elms have sprung up from the roots of their parents, for free and without most people noticing during an age of industrialised tree planting. Yes they are still blighted by disease and most will not grow to see biological old age but that's hardly the whole story. They should be known, cherished and protected, not airily dismissed and ignored as though they were not there. They even provide a useful source of dead wood; even our tidy minded age cannot keep pace with cutting them down.

    I enjoy the I-Spy book by the way, but when I show it to my children I will say ""Dutch Elm Disease has killed nearly all of the *mature* English Elms in the UK, and now there are only a few left, *most notably* in the area around Brighton in East Sussex. *Young trees grow in hedgerows and woodland from suckers, before succumbing to disease*."

    I enjoyed John Miles' case for the defence of sycamore and I loved Apus Apus' concept of 'woodland gardening'

    One of the late great Oliver Rackham's many contributions was to see trees as "actors in the play", and wildlife in their own right, not just background. Which your post also reminds us very well; thanks again Ian.

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    • Les Wallace says:

      Something that could go a long way to help would be for every local area to have its own Native Tree Arboretum - a representative of virtually every native species - plus common non natives - together for education and comparison. Big municipal parks could probably incorporate this quite easily. Would be handy and very interesting.

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      • MK says:

        A good source of sustainable and locally sourced planting stock too, for those occasions where planting is actually needed - as opposed to the industrial stick insect sapling factory nurseries.

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        • Les Wallace says:

          Good point, never thought of that. Our public tree planting schemes need an overhaul!

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        • Ernest Moss says:

          'industrial stick insect sapling factory nurseries'

          There are plenty of excellent nurseries who supply high quality locally sourced native rootstock. I'm not sure I understand the stick insect comment, I thought it was widely accepted that the smaller the rootstock the better? Less stress on the roots etc.

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  19. Bimbling says:

    Perhaps the 'Springwatch' presenter is old enough to remember the tree as the Scotch fir?

    No? Thought not. Tree-blindness.

    thanks for the interesting blog.

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  20. Des McKenzie says:

    I'm often taken aback at how many wildlife enthusiasts cannot identify even some of our most common native species.

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  21. murray marr says:

    Lovely piece and great advocacy of the arboreal kind.
    Thirty years ago here, in Sussex, a Dr Martin Willing, a conchologist, asked me about some large coppice stools of Broad Leaved Lime that were occurring with ancient woodland indicators rarities such as Herb Paris and Cheese Snail on the scarp face of the downs. I replied, by quoting a local but eminent botanist – ‘if it’s not the small leaved species, such trees would have been the result of planting on abandoned pasture’ and, by implication, of no great interest.

    Fortunately Martin ignored this information and, to cut a long story short, helped make the great discovery that these wooded slopes are direct descendants of Atlantic prehistoric forests. It had always been thought that the woods of the western South Downs were secondary and emergent on abandoned sheep-walk. (Definitely true for the great Sussex/Hants yew woods – they are only about 300 years old). But close inspection of the trees showed them to be truly wild, not planted cultivars, and that some of the coppice stools were estimated to be well over two thousand years old.
    These woods are crossed by numerous footpaths; we are all blind. (That includes doyens of international field botany.) Sometimes received wisdom must be looked around and pondered for a few moments.
    The moral of this story is that scientists should spend as much time as possible doing inter-disciplinary chitchat.
    Lastly, so much for a little knowledge etc. Worse than that, so much for me not listening properly to the evidence.
    The sad bit to all this, is that Martin has never been properly credited for this extraordinary discovery.
    Here's to the intelligence of molluscs and those who study them.

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  22. Ernest Moss says:

    Thank you Ian, I must confess to tree-blindness when it comes to many coniferous species. But I agree there is no excuse for confusing the two main birch species - although I'm sure they do hybridise more readily than it is thought.

    I'm often amazed that many landowners don't know just how rare and interesting many of the trees are that are growing on their land. How on earth can someone spend the best part of 50 years managing a field with two pristine native Black Poplar trees on the boundary and not notice them?!...

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    • Paul Fisher says:

      Ernest and Ian. You may wish to look up a wonderful song 'The Black Poplar' by one of the greatest folk singers ever, imho, Vin Garbutt. A true celebration of a lovely tree.

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      • Ernest Moss says:

        Thanks Paul.

        I actually stumbled upon a black poplar hybrid this afternoon, although it took me a while to conclude that it was actually a hybrid as the bark had the really similar 'corky' appearance that usually gives the natives away.

        Black Poplars are fantastic trees and much much more should be done to conserve them.

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  23. Nick Moran says:

    A fun autumn game for the birder/twitcher with a basic grasp of tree and shrub ID: use actual (English) species names to direct others onto the Pallas's Warbler you're watching. "It's just flicked from the Hawthorn into the Elder!". I'm tree-partially-sighted (at best) but even my rudimentary knowledge seems above average in such cases, judging by the blank looks. Surely better than the alternative, though: "It's just flicked from the green tree to the green bush."

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  24. David says:

    Well done on an excellent piece. The NT has a long way to go on interpretation for the land it owns and any of the wildlife on it.

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