Rare British Trees | Britain’s Endangered Native Trees | 2020

rare british trees old tree

By current estimates there are currently more than 10,000 species of tree worldwide threatened with extinction. Of those 10,000, many are hanging on by a thread, their populations down to double or even single digits.

And here in Britain we are no exception, with a number of rare British trees listed on the ICUN Red List as struggling to varying degrees. 

Of course plant life rarely gets the same publicity as their animal counterparts, and as such many simply slip through the cracks. 

Luckily, there is plenty which can be done to reverse this trend, with the first step as always being to gain a greater understanding of the task at hand.

To this end we’ve decided to put together this list, giving a brief overview of just a few of the most threatened species of rare British trees around today.

We’ll take a look at their habitat, the factors which led to their collapsing numbers and of course, how we can help to reverse this decline. 

Our little island has a rich ecological history. Unique plants and animals have for millions of years called this patch of land home, and it would be such a shame to see these unique pieces of history simply slip through our fingers without putting up a fight. 

So, without further ado – Let’s take a look.  

1. Ley’s Whitebeam (Sorbus Leyana)

Known colloquially as ‘Wales Rarest Tree’, our once healthy population of this rare British tree has as a result of sustained habitat loss been reduced to just a few surviving individuals.

Growing mainly as a small tree or spreading shrub, it is currently believed that there are as few as 17 surviving Ley’s Whitebeams left in the wild, clinging to the limestone cliffs upon which they call home amongst the hills of the Brecon Beacons. 

Discovered in the late 1800’s, Ley’s Whitebeam was named after the botanist and reverend Augustin Ley. Not a huge deal is known of this particularly rare British tree’s origins, however 

current theories suggest that Ley’s Whitebeam may be a natural hybrid between the commonly found Mountain Ash (S. Aucuparia) and some as yet unknown member of the Whitebeam family.  

Genetic testing is currently being carried out by experts at the Welsh Botanical Gardens, in a bid to further understand the genetic and ecological origins of this rare British tree. It is the hope that by gaining a greater understanding of exactly where and how Ley’s Whitebeam evolved, conservation efforts moving forward will prove to be more fruitful.

Whatever its true history, what we know for certain is that the Ley’s Whitebeam is facing the very real threat of becoming completely extinct in the wild, with a huge genetic burden resting on the limbs of those few surviving individuals. 

Thanks to the work of the Botanical Gardens of Wales however, this especially rare British tree should at the very least live on within their conservation gardens, where cuttings from wild Ley’s Whitebeam specimens have been successfully established. 

Hopefully with continued conservation efforts from such hard-working organisations as the Welsh Botanical Gardens, this can mark the beginning of a new chapter for this beleaguered British tree. 

If you’d like more information on the various conservation efforts being undertaken by the Welsh Botanical Gardens please click the link and pay them a visit. 

2. Common Juniper (Juniperus Communis)

rare British Trees Common Juniper juniperis communis

Common Juniper – The ‘Spirit Tree’ of gin lovers everywhere in more ways than one. This increasingly rare British tree was once, as the name suggests, a common sight across much of the country. Usually forming as a small tree or spreading shrub, the Common Juniper is most at home in rocky, seemingly inhospitable areas such as chalky lowlands. 

Its berries were cultivated on a wide-scale for use as a traditional flavouring agent in the Gin industry – a practice which continues to this day – while cuttings from its spiny branches were hung outside homes over May-Day & Halloween to protect the home from malevolent spirits. 

And believe it or not, that’s far from the only mythical property attributed to the Common Juniper. Love potions were said to have been brewed from it’s berries, while dreaming of picking them was seen as a sign of good fortune.

Turns out this rare British tree packs quite the historical punch. 

Whether the love potions are effective or not, we unfortunately cannot say for sure. What we do know for sure however, is that as an unfortunate consequence of sustained habitat loss the Common Juniper has become increasingly under pressure, with it’s once thriving numbers steadily falling throughout the 20th century. 

To make matters worse, this rare British tree appears to be susceptible to a particularly nasty fungus-like disease known as Phytophthora austrocedrae . Attacking through the roots, this pathogen is capable of wreaking havoc on susceptible species, with a Phytophythora not dissimilar to this being responsible for the infamous Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s.

It seems this rare British tree can’t catch a break.

The news however is not all bad. In recent years populations levels have stabilised, showing the green shoots of a revival in some areas. We can thank many years of conservation work carried out by the likes of The Woodland Trust for this unexpected comeback, and can only hope that the momentum continues in the right direction for the Common Juniper from here on out.  

If you’d like more information on the various conservation efforts being undertaken by The Woodland Trust – Including how you could get involved – please click the link and pay them a visit. 

3. Arran Whitebeam (Sorbus Arranensis)

Rare british trees Arran Whitebeam Sorbus Arranensis
Credit: Scotlink.org

Next on our list – The Arran Whitebeam. Among the rarest species of trees in the world, the population of Arran Whitebeam is (as the name suggests) confined to this one Scottish isle. 

This rarity among rare British trees evolved as a naturally occurring hybrid of the Rowan and Rock Whitebeam species’, and appears to have been present on the isle since the last ice age over two million years ago. 

Similarly to Ley’s Whitebeam, the Arran Whitebeam lives primarily on rocky outcrops, growing to a height of over 7m in favourable, sheltered locations. Excessive grazing by the island’s deer population along with harsh conditions reduces this height considerably in most surviving individuals, leading most to take on the appearance of stout, multi-stemmed shrubs.

Although far less common than it once was on the isle, conservation efforts undertaken by numerous groups (Including Scottish National Heritage) have thankfully led to a stabilising of this rare british trees numbers. 

The small, existing populations have been noted and fenced off, forming a small conservation site at the very North end of the isle, while material has been propagated from and established at conservation sites on the mainland in tandem. 

As is often the case, education will be key in protecting this rarest of rare British trees. Islanders and visitors alike need to be made more aware of its precarious existence, and efforts made on the grass-roots level to re-introduce it to areas of the island where it has long since disappeared. 

So, if you find yourself on the beautiful isle of Arran – and you absolutely should, it’s a wonderful place to be – ask around and see whether you can pay this endangered British tree a visit for yourself. 

If you’d like more information on the various conservation efforts being undertaken by Scottish National Heritage – Including how you could get involved – please click the link and pay them a visit. 

4. Woolly Willow (Salix Lanata)

Credit: Wikipedia.org

A common sight amongst the scrublands of many of our nordic neighbours, the Woolly Willow has become increasingly scarce here in Britain over the course of the 20th century. 

Although capable of growing to a height of around two metres, this rare British tree usually takes the shape of a low-lying spreading shrub, its wooly silverish leaves creating a dense blanket above the rocky crags it likes to call home. 

An exact number of surviving plants is as of yet unknown, however they seem to be contained within small pockets of Scotland, usually found on rocky mountain sides above an altitude of 600m.

Overgrazing by resident sheep & deer populations has been pointed to as the main reason for the decline of this rare British tree, however populations have recently begun to move in the right direction thanks to dedicated conservation work in the area. 

Through careful propagation and the establishment of new populations across the region, the various bodies (Including Scottish National Heritage & The Botanical Garden Edinburgh) involved with the conservation of this rare British tree hope to usher in a far brighter future than was once envisioned. 

If you’d like more information on the various conservation efforts being undertaken by Scottish National Heritage or The Botanical Garden Edinburgh – Including how you could get involved – please click the link and pay them a visit. 

Wrapping Things Up

So there we have it, a brief overview of some rare British trees currently fighting for survival. Of course the few endangered species included within this article are barely a scratch on the surface of the problem of rare British trees, which itself is just one part of a global problem. 

Such little attention is paid to the world’s declining plant populations, and what a shame it would be to allow countless examples of these to slip through into the history books without so much as a whimper. 

So! Education and information are our weapons, and through informing more people of this criminally underrepresented problem hopefully we can begin to push the momentum in the opposite direction, ushering in a brighter future for our worlds many beautiful species of endangered plants. 

As always I hope this guide has been useful. If you’d like to be kept in the loop of whatever comes next from us here at the EcoGeeks then please feel free to subscribe below.

Have a great day.