British Wildlife of the Week
Deep within Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, a huge, gnarled tree spreads its crooked limbs out over a small clearing. This is the Major Oak, the most visited tree in Britain – and probably the most famous. Weighing around 23 tons, with a trunk girth of 10 metres, and a canopy of 28 metres, it’s the largest oak tree in the country. And, at between 800 and 1,000 years old, it’s also one of our oldest. But these are not the primary reasons for the Major Oak’s popularity.
According to folklore, the hollow interior of the Major Oak was used by Robin Hood and his merry men as a shelter and hideout. Due to fungal infection, the interior of the Major Oak is indeed mainly hollow and has enough room for several men to hide with their bows and arrows, but, in truth, the Major Oak was likely not much more than a sapling during the time Robin Hood supposedly lived. Today, the Major Oak is so old and decrepit that its long, twisting limbs are supported by a number of wooden stilts.
The Major Oak isn’t the only famous oak tree in the UK. There’s also the Midland Oak, which, until it was cut down in 1967, was reputed to mark the very centre of England; the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire, which, at over 1,000 years of age, is probably Britain’s oldest oak; and the Royal Oak in Shropshire, where the future King Charles II of England hid to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
Britain has surprisingly few native trees. When the last Ice Age ended around 12,000 years ago, there were hardly any trees in the British Isles; they had been wiped out by the cold and the glaciers. But the climate slowly warmed and, since Britain was still connected to continental Europe at the time, trees were able to flourish and spread north. However, only 32 species made it before rising sea levels caused the English Channel to merge with the North Sea, making Britain an island and disconnecting it from the mainland.
Over the millennia, humans have brought many other species of tree into the country, but only those original 32 species can be considered truly native. And of those, the most quintessentially English is surely the majestic oak. It’s certainly the most common tree in the UK, and its broad, pleasing shape, hard wood, and prolific acorns also establish the oak as the nation’s favourite tree. Its roundly lobed leaves are easily recognisable and feature as the symbols of both the Woodland Trust and the National Trust.
There are around 600 species of oak in the world, found mainly in the continents of North America, Europe and Asia. These trees are famously long-lived, but they tend to stop growing after about 300 years and may even shrink (and grow hollow) as they get older to prolong their lives. Only two species are native to Britain: the English oak (or pedunculate oak) and the sessile oak. The two species can hybridise and, in many places, the hybrid may be the most common type of oak. Together, these trees support more animal life than any other native British tree: almost 300 different kinds of insects depend on oaks, as do many species of birds and mammals, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, treecreepers, owls, bats and squirrels, along with other plants such as mosses and ferns.
It isn’t just animals that benefit from oaks; humans find them useful too. The scientific name of the English oak, [Quercus] robur, derives from the Latin meaning ‘strength and power’, for oak timber is prized as being particularly hard, dense and durable. In times past, the leaves, bark and acorns of this tree were also believed to heal many medical ailments, including diarrhoea, inflammation and kidney stones. Oaks were sacred to the Ancient Greeks, who associated them with the god Zeus; and to the druids, who worshipped the spirit of the tree. Even today, oak is a symbol of noble endurance, loyalty, strength and longevity – hardly surprising, therefore, that it’s the symbol of an 80th wedding anniversary, or that it’s the official national tree of not only England but no less than 16 other countries.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we will be looking at the fulmar, a bird that is known for its projectile vomiting.