The Mighty Oak Tree
"With a cure yet to be found, many of our ancient oaks are literally ‘bleeding to death’ and there is no plan for dealing with AOD"
By Peter Holthusen
The oak (Quercus robur), more commonly known as the English oak or pedunculate oak is deeply connected in our hearts as representing the very essence of England, and especially the power of the High King and his ancient and spiritual link to the land. It would be hard not to think of this tree as a masculine energy – mighty, strong, enduring and steadfast. The images we have of the oak are buried deep in our national psyche. Indeed, it is one of our longest-living trees, spanning generations upon generations.
For this reason, old oaks were venerated and used by the Druids, Ovates and Bards, and later by the Kings of England and the Church, for important meetings and ceremonies. They were planted to mark boundaries because of their longevity and strength to endure for hundreds of years.
Until the felling of the Royal Forest of Wychwood in the 1840s, Oxfordshire was one of the most wooded counties in England, but now only 7% of its area is woodland. Regardless, it still has 457 hectares of Forestry Commission-managed woodlands, including a fragment of the ancient forest of Bernwood near Waterperry; largely broad-leaf Queen Wood, College Wood and Cowleaze, near Watlington; Burnt Platt, Greyhone and Ipsden Woods, near Nettlebed; and the ancient woodlands at Crowsley Park, the south of Henley, which has been the site of a signals-receiving station used by the BBC since the Second World War.
However, it is not widely known but Oxfordshire is home to Europe’s oldest oak forest which was recently re-discovered at Blenheim Palace, which has been growing seemingly unheralded in Winston Churchill’s old back garden for centuries.
Blenheim Palace is home to the greatest collection of medieval oak trees in Europe according to new research. It is thought that a centuries-old area of the Estate, called High Park was originally created by King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror as part of a royal deer park in the 12th century.
With over 2000 acres of mature woodland on the Estate, most of which are designated ‘ancient’ or a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Blenheim Palace has a busy Forestry Team. Led by Nick Baimbridge, the Forestry Team undertakes regular coppicing, pollarding, felling and planting to preserve and maintain what is a unique natural habitat to hundreds of wildlife species.
As a long term strategy, part of the Estate and all the woodland are within a carefully coordinated ‘Woodland Management Scheme’ promoting a sustainable supply of timber for many generations while enhancing the natural state for wildlife and native plants.
Nothing goes to waste, and when trees are felled they are either sold for firewood, or chipped for their own use to produce renewable energy in the Estate’s innovative biomass boilers which power Park Farm and the Pleasure Gardens. A well as the extensive ornamental woodland, the team put in a lot of hard work to produce their very own Christmas trees, which are harvested and sold at the Palace during November and December.
Around 90% of the woodland is made up of oak trees and it is thought that at least 60 of these magnificent oaks date back to the Middle Ages or medieval period. This remarkable collection of 900 year-old trees have been preserved through a fortunate combination of the Royal love of hunting, the generosity of a grateful nation and landscape designer Capability Brown’s respect for ancient woodland. All these factors have helped to protect the forest from destruction and created one of the most biodiverse habitats in the UK.
“High Park is in my view the most stunning site in Europe for ancient oaks“, said Dr Aljos Farjon, Honorary Research Associate Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who has been carrying out a survey on the site as part of an international database of ancient trees.
“No other landscape in England has greater biodiversity, especially from invertebrates, fungi and lichens.”
The ancient woodlands support more than 100 different protected and notable of flora and fauna; including around 50 types of beetle and 16 butterfly and moth species. Other wildlife recorded in the forest includes otters, water voles, red kites, ospreys, lizards, grass snakes and great crested newts.
Until recently it was thought that a massive tree, known as ‘The King Oak’, which is more than nine metres in diameter and estimated to be at least 920 years old, was the most ancient surviving tree on the Estate. However, Nick Baimbridge and his Forestry Team believe they may have discovered an even larger oak at Blenheim Palace deeper in the woods which could be older.
In 1987 the palace and parkland were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site reflecting the importance of the architectural and landscape design work undertaken in the 18th century.
It was previously thought that Moccas Park, in Herefordshire, Windsor Great Park, in Berkshire and the ancient 4,500 acre woodlands of Savernake Forest, set on a Cretaceous chalk plateau between Marlborough and Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, had the largest collection of these ancient oak trees, but the new research means that Blenheim Palace has overtaken them.
The discovery of these medieval oak trees by Aljos Farjon, did not happen by chance, for the leading Kew botanist is researching ancient oaks across the country for a book ‘Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape’, which will be published by Kew Publishing in 2017.
He looked has looked at roughly 100 sites across England – which has the highest number of ancient oaks in Europe – and found that it has an incredible density of ancient trees packed into a small area.
Medieval trees are aged by their width and measure between six and nine metres in diameter, and Dr Farjon continued: “There is no other site in England that has so many ancient oaks in one area, it is truly remarkable. Moreover, there is no other place in the country which has so many nine metre trees, there are four alive and one standing dead. “High Park has as many as 60 ancient oaks, which is not surpassed by any other site I know, but more interestingly these trees could go back further than the Middle Ages as they were not planted and simply grew.”
The oak will take between 70 and 80 years before it begins to produce acorns. By then the trunk will be about 20 inches in diameter, but this will still be a young tree in the life of an oak. After it has reached 100 years, it will only increase its girth by about one inch (2.5 cm) a year, but this extremely hard dense wood is highly prized as a building material and firewood.
Until men devised iron cutting tools, the oak resisted all attempts to fell it. After this, ironically, oak became the main wood for making the charcoal needed for the furnaces which separated iron from its ore. It later became the main construction material for houses, churches and ships as it was strong and durable and its twisted branches provided the right shapes needed. In Elizabethan times, a law had to be passed, protecting the oak, to give the tree a chance to re-establish itself as so much of the great oak forests had been felled for building materials and fuel. After that, many oaks were coppiced to give a renewable resource. The oak woods we have now are a legacy from these times.
There are many famous old oak trees in England. The most notable perhaps is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. According to local folklore, it was used by Robin Hood and his merry men for shelter while avoiding arrest by the Sheriff of Nottingham, although it is rather disappointing to see it these days, for since the Victorian era its massive limbs have been supported partially by an elaborate system of scaffolding.
Other ancient oaks, such as the Minchenden (or Chandos) Oak, in Southgate, London, the old Crouch Oak in Addlestone, Surrey, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Bourne, Lincolnshire, and the famous Queen Elizabeth Oak in Cowdray Park near the village of Lodsworth, West Sussex can be found on village greens or in fields and would previously have been used as a boundary marker.
Many old oaks were called ‘Gospel Oaks’, relating to the time when the gospels were preached from beneath their mighty shade. Of course, this follows on from the custom and practice of the Druids who met in mighty oak groves and beneath old oak trees, for all their meetings and teachings were outside in the open and closely connected to the tree dryads or wood nymphs.
One etymology of the word Druid derives it from “dru-wid”, meaning “knower of oak trees”, but the word “deru” also means truth or troth and so could also give the meaning “knower of the truth”. In the Ogham, the oak is given the word Duir, which comes from the Gaelic word meaning “door” and there are many associations to be found linking the oak, not only to the doors of our houses but also as representing a doorway to inner strength and spirituality. The oak will lead the way to the truth, especially where this is connected to part actions and this revelation will bring strength and vision, and a doorway to new understanding.
Even the mighty oak is not without its threats, for scientists are warning that yet another tree disease has established itself in Britain, and this time it is not coming for the elm or ash, but the tree that built the ships that won the Battle of Trafalgar, the iconic English Oak.
Researchers have received a grant from Defra of £1.1 million to study a mysterious disease called acute oak decline (AOD), a fast-acting disease that can lead to the death of an oak tree within three to 10 years of infection. First observed in the 1980s, AOD has already affected several thousand oak trees across East Anglia, the Midlands, south east England and Wales, but scientists do not know what is causing the disease.
Dr Sandra Denman, Project Leader and Senior Research Scientist with the team appointed to identify its cause, said: “AOD is a serious problem for both of Britain’s native oak trees. Oak is our most important native broad-leafed tree species and is iconic to Britain.” Denman said the causes of AOD were complex, and two of the bacteria that had been isolated were unique to the diseased trees. Her team also found AOD coincided with the oak jewel beetle, ‘Agrilus biguttatus’, being found within the trees. She said: “Thus a key research question is to determine the relationship between the beetle and the bacteria.”
The National Trust’s ancient tree expert Brian Muelaner, said: “The disease can be seen on affected trees as a black, tarry-like resin bleeding from the tree bark. The tar forms as the tree floods the infected area with sap to make anaerobic conditions to kill the infection.”
With a cure yet to be found, many of our ancient oaks are literally ‘bleeding to death’ and there is no plan for dealing with AOD so diseased trees must be left to die naturally over the three to 10 years it takes for AOD to take hold. If the cause can be identified, a plan can be put into place to prevent the disease spreading.
Thankfully the disease is not affecting our ancient trees, such as those at Blenheim Palace that are over 600 years old, but if we lose younger trees then we will have a generational gap in the future which affects biostability in the environment. In the meantime, it is hoped the public can help by using the Forestry Commission’s Tree Alert tool to report suspected cases.
For generations upon generations, people have gone to sit beneath the mighty oak to gain strength and spiritual renewal. The outside world can be forgotten and the inner world can slip back into perspective. The oak tree’s mighty presence will help restore faith in ourselves and within this lies the ability to strive actively to achieve any goal you may wish to attain in life. If like me you have a passion for living, it is well worth finding the time to go and sit with an oak tree and to absorb the strengths it has to offer us. Do remember to thank the tree after each encounter, not because the tree needs your thanks but to keep open your channels of love and respect for the mighty oak and all of nature. This will enhance your ability to receive their qualities on the deepest level.
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