How Old Was the Bum Tree?


To many it was a loved local icon, a visual pun half-way along the ‘sand track’ and a natural wonder, to others a graffiti blight or a traffic hazard. To the endangered population of greater gliders in the Seven Mile Beach National Park, it was a home.

Affectionately known as the ‘Bum Tree’, its age was the subject of both wild and learned debate, and the origin of its posterial burl the realm of folklore. At breast height, the maximum diameter of the trunk was 1.7 metres.

In 2014, the Shoalhaven City Council determined that the old-growth tree on the road verge near the intersection of Beach and Gerroa Roads was impeding the safe operation of the intersection and should be removed.

The decision prompted considerable opposition and debate. Despite its recognised ecological value, roadside vigils, and public discussion of alternatives, the felling of the tree proceeded on 14 March 2014. In the midst of conflicting claims about the age and value of the tree, Berry Landcare began a project to salvage a sample ‘slice’ of the trunk and accurately determine the tree’s age.

The objective was to provide a record for future research, and reference data to assist future decisions in managing old-growth trees. The Shoalhaven City Council agreed to fund project costs. After felling, close inspection of the stump revealed the tree originally had two trunks, and at some time in its early life, one of these had fallen, and the resulting overgrowth across the scar had formed the infamous burl. Hundreds of volunteer hours then followed in preparing the sample and sanding the surface to a fine burnish to reveal its record of tree rings.

An analysis of the rings, combined with radiocarbon dating, was then conducted by Dr Matthew Brookhouse at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. The analysis concluded that the Bum Tree probably germinated sometime between 1626 and 1680 CE (Common Era), that is, between 334 and 388 years before it was felled in 2014.

This places the tree well before European knowledge of the Australian continent and makes it a contemporary of the British monarch Charles II.

Berry Landcare project director, Kelvin Officer stated that “We hope that this age determination will better inform future management decisions about old-growth vegetation along the road verges of the Shoalhaven district. Rather than felling, greater effort in road design and resource allocation is justified in the retention of such ancient trees, for the benefit of our environment and our appreciation of it.” “The Bum Tree was situated within the Berry Corridor, an important wildlife corridor between the coast and the hinterland, and the retention of similar habitat trees should be a high priority into the future.”

The polished trunk sample will soon be on permanent display at the Berry Museum. The salvaged burl can be seen at the Shoalhaven Heads pool complex. Berry Landcare encourage landholders to protect and connect their existing patches of bush. Landholders interested in funding support can contact Bush Connect Project Officer, David Rush by email: davidr@npansw.org.au or phone 0418 977 402.

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© 2017 by David Kerr