The English Oak (Quercus robur)

There are quite a number of plants that find a place in culture, hearts and minds.  Flowers such as roses, daffodils, thistles and clover are associated with cultural identities in the UK but the English Oak has had a particularly revered place in our heritage.
Ancient European cultures venerated the Oak tree. It would often be the tallest structure in the landscape; this coupled with the high water content of the tree made it particularly prone to lightning strikes. No wonder that ancient tribes thought that Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun or Thor were trying to demonstrate their power through this tree. The Oak leaf thus became a symbol of power and strength, so can often be found in military symbolism.

Many individual oak trees are of such stature and presence locally that they have their own particular names. Most parishes had what was known as a Gospel Oak where bible readings took place. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is not likely to have been where Robin Hood met with Little John and Maid Marion, as it is not old enough, but that doesn't matter to the tourists that go to see it. In Glastonbury we have The Oaks of Avalon - Gog and Magog, and in Leicestershire there are a group of Oaks called Topless Oaks that were pollarded in mourning when Lady Jane Grey was beheaded. King Charles II was said to have hidden from the Roundheads in what later became known as The Royal Oak in Boscobel, leading to many public houses being named The Royal Oak". 
Photo: The Royal Oak in Boscobel

There are place names such as Sevenoaks which was home to seven oak trees that were planted in Knole Park in 1902. Sadly six of them were lost in the Great Storm on October 15th 1987. 

The English Oak has a special place in literature and poetry;

John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote:

The monarch oak, the patriarch of trees,

Shoots, rising up and spreads by slow degrees;

Three centuries he grows, and three he stays

Supreme in state, and in three more decays


William Boyce wrote the anthem for the Royal Navy in 1759 to include the chorus line:

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;

We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!

We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

Whilst the ancient 1000 year old Shakespeare’s Oak in Stoneleigh Abbey prompted this verse by Chandos Leigh Esq.:

 Our present race it will survive.

By those who may hereafter live

In veneration held :

If by the lightning's stroke unrent,

Still flourishing, too prominent

In grandeur to be fell'd

And youth elate, in sportive mood,

Outrushing from the deep'ning wood 

Sadly for the oak tree, the wood is so strong that it was used extensively for ship building. This did not necessarily mean that the whole tree was felled because very old trees tend to have branches that split and curve into the ideal shape for a boat hull, and these could be harvested without killing the tree. However, it is estimated that in 1790 the 300 ships in the Royal Navy fleet required 1,2000,000 mature oak trees to have been felled. The construction of HMS Victory alone used a total of 5500 oak trees. Barns and houses, particularly from the Tudor era were built with oak beams and are still standing.

It is not just the mature tree that means so much to us, the acorn fascinates us as well. “Mighty Oaks from little acorns grow” is a 14th century proverb that evokes hope for the future and for great things to come, still resonates with us. The trees can be up to 40 years old before they produce acorns.  In a “mast year” - a bumper crop  which occurs once in every 5 to 10 years, each tree will produce thousands. Acorns are food for a huge variety of animals - Wild Boar, Badgers, Wood Mice and Squirrels.

They are a particular favourite of Jays (Garrulus glandarius - the chatting acorn gatherer) who can pick up as many as 5 acorns in their beak at any one time (a total of 7500 a week! ) and take them away to bury them for a later snack. They invariably forget where they have put some of them but have unwittingly performed the woodman’s task of regenerating the woodland. Without the Jay, the trees would not successfully grow as the oak sapling needs light away from the canopy of the mother tree to be able to mature
The roots can spread up to two and a half times the radius of the crown and are quite near the surface, so it is most important not to compact or disturb the soil under the tree unduly. Our farmers were unfortunately encouraged to plough every available space  and this has meant that oak trees in arable land have been suffering from soil disturbance, and even cows sheltering in the shade compact the soil under the tree.

The Woodland Trust states no other tree has a greater biodiversity than that of the Oak. 2300 species of plant and animal can be found on an oak tree, 326 depend on it and 229 are rarely found elsewhere.

Oak flowers provide food for the caterpillars of purple hairstreak butterfly (Favonius quercus) and dark-crimson underwing moth (Catocala sponsa) and the pollen provides food for the Oak Mining Bee, pollination is mainly by wind.
Photo: Purple Hairstreak (male)

The new leaves feed Oak Lutestring (Cymatophorima diluta), Great Oak Beauty (Hypomecis roboraria) and the scarce Merveille du Jour moth (Moma alpium). The UK’s largest wood ant (Formica rufa group) will happily climb up to the top of the canopy in search of aphids attracted to the leaves. 

Tree Pipit, Wood Warblers and Redstart are a few of the 38 species of birds that favour the Oak tree. When the bark gets old and slightly loose bats will use the nooks and crannies to roost. 

Lichens, liverworts, mosses and fungi can be found in abundance on the branches and roots of a mature tree. 

Despite the normal depressing figures about lack of biodiversity in the UK compared to mainland Europe it is heartening to discover from that the UK has more ancient native Oak trees than the rest of the EU combined, a staggering 1 million in London alone. Although the Oak has been able to withstand pests and diseases up to now, Acute Oak Decline (AOD) which has affected up to 1/3rd of the UK Woodland combined with the possible effects of climate change are very worrying. Research in order to mitigate the damage and protect this much loved tree is very much needed.
Article compiled by Andrew Harrison & Julia Shahin
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