The mighty oak has been central to English history and culture for centuries. Now new research is revealing precisely why.
A nationwide survey has just revealed that England has more ancient oak trees than the rest of Europe put together.
Over the past four years, tree historians have discovered 1,200 previously unknown but still surviving mediaeval and Tudor oaks, pushing the grand total for such trees in England to a remarkable 3,400.
About 85 per cent of them are between 400 and 600 years old, while some 12 per cent date back 600 to 800 years, with 3.4 per cent (117 examples) dating back 800 to 1,000 years. The survey work has been coordinated by the Woodland Trust, working in conjunction with the Ancient Tree Forum, the Tree Register and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
By contrast, the figure for the whole of continental Europe is estimated to be just 2,000 ancient oaks – 1,260 of which are in Sweden, only some 120 in Germany and perhaps 300 in Romania.
In terms of 800- to 1,000-year-old oaks, continental Europe has only 85 – 14 of which are in Sweden and 24 in Germany.
As well as increasing England’s ancient oak inventory by more than 50 per cent, the new research also helps to explain why the oak has consistently been more central to English culture than it has been to many continental European ones.
Oaks are strongly represented in so many aspects of English history. It is the national tree of England and one of the most popular symbols of royalty in Britain – with, for instance, more than 500 pubs called the Royal Oak.
Oak trees, along with acorns and oak leaves, are also particularly common in English heraldry – and adorn countless English aristocratic coats of arms. The oak-built ships of the pre-mid-19th century Royal Navy were often known collectively as the Wooden Walls of Old England – and the official senior service march is still the 18th century anthem, “Heart of Oak”. Indeed over the centuries, eight Royal Navy warships have borne the name Royal Oak – and the tree has been associated with historical characters ranging from Robin Hood to Charles II.
But why have so many more ancient oaks survived in England than have on the continent?
Recently completed research, by Dr Aljos Farjon of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, suggests that England’s ancient oak heritage is a consequence of the country’s unique political and cultural history.
England is the only major country in Europe to have been taken over, lock, stock and barrel, by a rival geopolitical entity – namely the Duchy of Normandy in 1066. “The Norman conquest not only changed the political structure and direction of England, but also initiated a total change in how much of the English countryside evolved,” said Dr Farjon, author of a ground-breaking new book on England’s oak heritage, Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape, due to be published later this Spring.
William the Conqueror’s victory meant that all land in England belonged to the new king by right of conquest. It gave birth to a thoroughgoing feudal system in which the King gave land to dozens of tenants-in-chief (his barons). They, in turn, gave the right to exploit those lands (and their populations) to sub-tenants (the more minor nobles). Among the lands which the King kept for his own exclusive use were the major forests – which he used for hunting. With the Royal Forests open for the hunt to only a privileged few, and to create their own hunting parks, the aristocracy imported southern Italian fallow deer to populate them (a strategy which was easier to achieve because the Normans also ruled southern Italy).
Indeed, within 140 years of the Norman conquest of England, the number of deer parks had gone up almost 60-fold (from 35 to at least 2,000) – and it is in those Norman-origin former hunting parks that about 50 per cent of England’s ancient oaks can be found today. Hunting in thousands of relatively small hunting parks required two things – relatively open woodland (to allow hunters to actually see the deer they were hunting) and lots of deer. To a large extent, the sheer number of tree shoot-grazing deer helped prevent the woodland becoming too dense, which in turn favoured oak growth rather than the growth of rival beeches and limes.
Oaks are more slow-growing than those latter two species – and as a result can easily become overtopped (and therefore deprived of sunlight and thus killed) by them in dense forest environments. By contrast, deer parks, consisting of more open woodland, were ideal habitats for oaks to become truly ancient in – and that is what, courtesy of William the Conqueror and his nobles, seems to have happened in England.The Royal Forests and Chases contributed to the preservation of the ancient oaks in a similar way.
Partly because England’s oaks were able to grow particularly old in so many deer parks, the distribution of ancient oaks around the country is very uneven. About 55 per cent of England’s ancient oaks are to be found in just ten counties – Oxfordshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Warwickshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Herefordshire is the top county, with 366 oaks older than 400 years.
The greatest single concentration is in part of the Blenheim Palace estate in Oxfordshire. In that one former deer park alone, Dr Farjon has found, over the past four years, 112 ancient oaks which started growing before the year 1600 – and elsewhere in the country he has succeeded in discovering a further 400 of similar vintage. It’s the largest number of ancient oaks ever discovered by one individual in British botanical history.
The oldest oaks in Britain – each about 900 to 1,000 years old – are located in Merton (Cheshire), Lydham Manor (Shropshire) and Bowthorpe (Lincolnshire). These are all approximately 13 metres (43 feet) in circumference.
It’s thought that, up until the establishment of the Forestry Commission in 1919, there had been thousands more ancient oaks in England. Tragically, many of them were felled – often in former Royal Forests – to make way for commercial forestry, particularly in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In Europe commercial forestry had started two centuries earlier – and therefore contributed much to the relatively greater paucity of ancient oaks on the continent.
“Great oaks from little acorns grow” is a proverb of ancient Roman origin – but the new survey shows that, partly courtesy of Italian deer, it is England that now has the greatest abundance of truly ancient oaks in Europe.
Ancient Oaks In The English Landscape by Aljos Farjon, is due out on 1 May and available to pre-order on Amazon