How old is ‘The Survivor Tree’?

‘The Survivor Tree’ – no longer the only tree in the valley
Photo Credit: Aiden Maccormick/scotlandbigpicture.com/WTML

We have a rowan tree at Carrifran Wildwood shortlisted for Scotland’s Tree of the Year and have been sharing information about it on social media. This lead to a question of how old the tree was? I contacted biologist Philip Ashmole, editor of ‘A Journey in Landscape Restoration- Carrifran Wildwood and beyond’ and coordinator of the Wildwood project, to find out more.

The simple answer was, that without core sampling or counting rings on the felled tree, we are unable to give an accurate age. However, Philip’s hunch is that the rowan is less than 100 years old. He goes onto say, the ecology of rowans is unusual, in that they sometimes start life epiphytically, growing in crevices in the trunks of ancient trees, apparently getting their nutrients from decaying parts of the host tree.  Sometimes, they manage to get a root down to the ground, and can then gradually take over from the host – often alders.  Philip believes that in pristine woodlands, rowans often – perhaps even usually – propagated in this way, out of the reach of mammalian herbivores.

However, in mountainous denuded country still infested with excessive numbers of herbivores, rowans use their talent of getting a foothold in cracks in the rocks in craggy places. They can survive if they manage to grow out of reach of mammals and at least one side of the lower part of the trunk is also out of reach, so avoiding ring-barking.  Rowans can also regenerate in rocky ground among heather, where they can survive indefinitely at around one foot high, nipped off whenever they put their heads up above the heather.  This is the source of most of the rowan regeneration on our sites. In many other upland sites – eg in the distant parts of Creag Meagaidh and at Loch Muick on the Balmoral estate – massive regeneration would happen immediately if herbivore pressure was reduced sufficiently.

A rowan tree growing on rocks at Carrifran – Photo Credit: Hugh Chalmers

Part of the story of why rowan trees are able to survive, is that the seeds are not too small and short-lived (like willow seed) and the berries are dispersed by birds, which often deposit little packages of seeds and faecal fertiliser on rocky perches that offer cracks for establishment.

So, no answer to how old the tree is, since core sampling or counting of rings on the felled tree would be needed, but a special tree nonetheless.

Please vote for ‘The Survivor Tree’ and help us celebrate 20 years of ecological restoration, symbolised by this rowan tree.

Find out more:

Tree of the Year

Rowan Trees

Rowan Jelly

A Journey in Landscape Restoration

The Carrifran Wildwood Story