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Dr Owen Johnson – and one of his books, Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland

Meet Dr Owen Johnson, champion of champion trees

If you’re a tree lover you may already know that Hastings has twelve champion trees. A champion tree is the largest of its species in the British Isles. Nine of these are in Alexandra Park. Joan Taylor-Rowan stood under one such tree – an Adpressa yew – with Hastings’ resident and tree expert, Dr Owen Johnson MBE.

I assumed the doctorate was tree-related but Dr Johnson majored in English literature and completed a PhD on the poet Ted Hughes. Given that Ted Hughes was renowned for his nature poetry, writing such school exam stalwarts as The Thought Fox and Crow, I wondered what came first – the literature or the trees? ‘The trees were the first love,’ Dr Johnson said. ‘My parents got so fed up with me asking how tall they thought this tree or that tree might be, that they bought me a hypsometer.’

Using this instrument, the 14-year-old Owen Johnson discovered the tallest alder in Britain at the time, at Old Roar Ghyll. Sadly, this no longer exists but it did make the Guinness Book of Records.  It was through this that he met the founder of the Tree Register, Alan Mitchell. The Tree Register was set up to measure, record and identify notable trees in the UK.  Fired with enthusiasm, Owen Johnson joined The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and then volunteered with the Tree Register and eventually wrote and published his first book about trees, The Sussex Tree Book in 1998. This was followed by The Collins Tree Guide – part of a series of books by Collins publishers which is still a best seller and full of fascinating detail.

While people love the aesthetic qualities of trees, from their textured bark to their autumnal colour and of course the fruits and nuts they provide, Dr Johnson urges people to appreciate the unseen marvels of the tree, their indispensable role in the ecosystem, purifying the air, absorbing C02 and providing food and shelter for a huge variety of species from the glamourous jay that lives on acorns, to the invisible microorganisms that help enrich the soil around the roots.

Black Poplar (Populus nigra) © Neil Wyatt

I asked what individuals in Hastings could do. ‘We’re already pretty good in Hastings,’ he said. ‘We have a dedicated tree officer, and we have a strategy for planting street trees and conserving the trees we have.’ Hastings not only has champion trees but it’s also home to a number of rare species. A magnificent Wild Black Poplar can be found near the footpath by the Alexandra Academy.

Ideally, Dr Johnson believes the government needs a unified strategy for managing our forests, especially the precious and irreplaceable ancient forests which have been threatened by development projects such as HS2. ‘It all comes down to financial incentives to encourage landowners to protect them.’

Any piece of advice for readers, I asked? ‘Plant trees that will grow big, if you can. People are put off doing this by legislation which puts the responsibility on the owner of the tree if there is any damage in a storm or through root damage. We need to learn to live more comfortably with big trees,’ he said, ‘because we can’t live without them.’

Finally, I asked Dr Johnson what it was about trees in particular, that caught people’s imagination. ‘They live longer than us and they’re bigger than us – they put us in our place,’ he said.

National Tree Week runs from Saturday 27 November to Sunday 5 December 2021. There are several local events scheduled – see our separate Tree Week article.

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Posted 21:45 Wednesday, Nov 24, 2021 In: Hastings People

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