Last weekend a team of professional climbers climbed and measured three of the main contenders for the UK's tallest tree. The team comprised of:
Mark Tansley - Arboricultural lecturer & NPTC assessor from Sparsholt College Hampshire
Steve Woollard - Arboricultural lecturer from Sparsholt College
Lukasz Warzecha - Lead climber for an arboricultural company in Edinburgh and internationally renowned rock climber/photographer (see: LW Images)
Justin Palmer - NPTC assessor / SRT instructor / retailer for Safety Technology in South Wales
Chris Hunter - Lead climber for Urban Forestry in Bury St Edmonds
First up on Thursday February 19th was the Hermitage Douglas Fir in Dunkeld, Perthshire. This tree grows out of the side of the river bank at a crazy angle before turning vertically upwards for the next 200ft or so. As such it is most probably the tallest tree if measured from the low side of its base. However it is the measurement from the highest side which counts and after a decade of varying results the team recorded a definitive tape measurement of 61.31m, slightly taller than what was previously thought.
The second tree to be measured was the Stronardron Douglas Fir in the grounds of Dunans Castle in Argyll on Friday February 20th. This tree was thought for several years to be joint tallest in the UK at 62m, before Dughall Mor and another Douglas Fir at Lake Vyrnwy in Wales were remeasured. Mark told me that the actual height they had recorded on Friday was far taller than previously thought, at 63.79m!
This put the height of this tree to within 20cm of the provisional height of Dughall Mor recorded by laser in 2006 as the tallest tree in the UK! (Dave Hunt and I had climbed Dughall Mor in 2007 but as it turned out, we had to descend without having had time to measure it as our climb was without formal permission from the Forestry Commission.)
The third and final tree on the itinerary was a fast growing Grand Fir at Blair Castle, Perthshire. By pure coincidence Dave and I were due to be driving past Blair Atholl on our way to the mountains on Saturday, the very same day that the team would be at Blair Castle measuring the Grand Fir! This opportunity was too good to miss and Mark Tansley very kindly invited Dave and I along to witness the event. By another coincidence it turned out that both parties had booked into the same Youth Hostel at nearby Pitlochry and we arrived to find the team standing outside the front entrance discussing the previous two day's events. We chatted for a few moments before we all retired to our rooms - we needed to be up at 05:30 to leave enough time to get a line into the tree before the grounds were opened to the public.
According to Polly Freeman of Atholl Estates the Grand Fir had overtaken the 59m Douglas Fir beside it several years ago and was continuing to grow rapidly, reaching a laser-measured 63.5m last year. The previous two trees measured by climbing had turned out to be taller than previously thought and as our small convoy of vehicles headed off in the dawn twilight towards Blair Castle I wondered whether this tree would turn out to be the tallest of them all.
When we arrived at Diana's Grove where the former Dukes of Atholl had planted many specimens that were now amongst the tallest trees in Perthshire (sometimes by firing seeds at the hillside from a canon) a full risk assessment was carried out and the area around the tree was courdoned off while Justin loaded up the Big Shot. Rope installation is a great leveller and because of the dense foliage and nearby trees, even Justin had to make several unsuccessful attempts before the perfect placement was found.
The rest of the climb was fairly straightforward. Visible as a tiny orange dot, Justin made his way towards the top of the thinly tapering spire, with Lukasz taking numerous photos from the ground and from the neighbouring Douglas Fir and Chris and Steve assisting with the measuring, while Mark took laser readings from various positions. The expected crowds of spectators never materialised but by the time Mark announced the result, a few interested people had turned up. And the height? 62.70m - not as tall as expected but still the tallest tree in Perthshire.
At this point Dave and I had to leave because we were planning to climb to the summit of Ben Lawers before nightfall. (As it turned out we had to turn back before the summit ridge due to dangerously high winds and ended up having to suffer the ordeal of sitting in the bar at the Killin Hotel 'till the wee small hours drinking Lagavulin 16yr old whisky with some friends who had driven up from Edinburgh to meet us. It's a hard life!)
However there is one more twist in the tail of this story: Mark and the team travelled the following day to Reelig Glen Wood near Inverness, where a certain Douglas Fir named Dughall Mor stands and, although the Forestry Commission had not granted permission for it to be climbed, they did measure it from several positions by laser and found that it was a mere 62.02m, some 2 metres less than previously measured. This would imply that Dughall Mor is actually 3rd or 4th tallest and that the Stronardron Douglas Fir, at 63.79m is now the tallest living thing in the UK, and therefore Northern Europe.