A FAREWELL TO OAKS?

Our national tree is under threat, from foreign seedlings and building regulations. Thomas Pakenham protests
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The Independent Culture
We can all identify the common oak when it reaches maturity. It is brash to the point of brutality: a massive beast without a straight line in it, all elbows and thumbs, pushing out its arms sideways as though each tree was determined to be a whole forest. This is the species that botanists have aptly termed Quercus robur, the oak of strength, and is popularly called the "English oak".

Two hundred years ago, when the oaks at the bottom of my garden were young, the British were alarmed by the shortage of oak trees, and with reason. Britain's navy, the nation's only defence against Napoleon, was planked with British oak. No imports of oak planks were available. To keep up his spirits, John Bull hummed "Hearts of Oak" (the words by David Garrick) and identified himself with a species which combined a craggy exterior with the supposed national virtues, strength, power, endurance.

Today we are less sure about our national virtues; if we identify with anything, it is not with a tree designed to last 1,000 years. Oak timber is no longer prized - not even, it turned out last month, by the timber trade. It was reported that the British Standards Institution had excluded the English oak from the latest list of high-grade timber suitable for repairing old buildings and building new ones. Conservationists working to plant new oak forests fear that this will damage the economics of their schemes.

Other conservationists complain that, even when we do plant oak (in some of the 300 new Millennium-funded woodlands planned for Britain and Northern Ireland), we forget what was always one of the tree's practical and romantic attractions. It was made in Britain, a native tree that had sown itself here after crossing the land bridge from Europe, when the ice-age ended, 10,000 years ago. So it was perfectly tailored to our wayward mixture of soils, frisking about in limy clay or acid sand, and revelling in our crazy climate. Yet thousands of acres of new woodlands will be planted with seedlings of Quercus robur brought over from Europe - because they are a few pence cheaper. Scientists have started to mutter about "genetic pollution". Mongrels, formed from the parvenu foreign oaks, will muddy our native strains of Quercus robur. There is even the worry that British birds and beetles will turn up their noses at this foreign food.

I don't like chauvinism, even in beetles, but I think I know what the objectors mean. During the last three years, I have criss-crossed Britain and Ireland working on a new book on trees, which meant hunting down and photographing the most remarkable oaks. Dare I say that in our islands we have the finest examples of the finest oak species in the world? This may sound smug; but consider the facts. The two largest common oaks officially recorded here - the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire and the Fredville Oak in Kent - are both about 40ft in girth measured at 5ft from the ground. No one, it seems, has ever found an oak of that size in Europe. Probably our wet summers have something to do with our success in breeding oaks. Another reason may be that we have long been more sentimental about old trees than our friends in Europe. Ever since the time of Shakespeare (and before), we have stood and gawped at these monstrous beasts, many of which have histories or legends attached to them. An ancient tree known as Macbeth's oak remains at Birnam; and you have only to drive through Windsor Great Park to see one of several candidates for the blasted oak, Herne the Hunter's tree, immortalised by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Nearby, disembowelled with age yet still carrying a green head of branches, is William the Conqueror's Oak. By the mid-19th century, it was already believed to be 900 years old. Today it combines the pathos of a survivor with the fecundity of an earth mother - a mother perfectly adapted for the next millennium. All around it is a family of sapling oaks self-sown from its acorns. A single great oak can produce 10,000 acorns in a good year. You could collect enough in Windsor Great Park to create 100 millennium forests. If only we still had the heart to plant them. !

KETT'S OAK, WYMONDHAM, NORFOLK

THE TREE UNDER WHICH ROBERT KETT RALLIED HIS SUPPORTERS BEFORE LEADING THEM ON HIS ILL-FATED REBELLION IN 1549

HERNE'S OAK?, WINDSOR GREAT PARK

ONE OF THREE TREES THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ORIGINAL OF HERNE'S OAK IN `THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR'

HERNE'S OAK?, WINDSOR GREAT PARK

ANOTHER OF THE THREE CANDIDATES IN THE PARK FOR THE ORIGINAL OF SHAKESPEARE'S `BLASTED OAK'

THE BOWTHORPE OAK, LINCOLNSHIRE (above)

SAID TO BE 1,000 YEARS OLD. IN THE 18TH CENTURY, THE SQUIRE OF BOWTHORPE USED TO DINE IN ITS HOLLOW TRUNK WITH 20 FRIENDS

THE LARGE PORTER, WELBECK (left)

ONE OF THE DUKE OF PORTLAND'S CELEBRATED OAKS; IN 1724 HE DROVE A COACH AND FOUR THROUGH ONE OF ITS NEIGHBOURS (NOW LOST) FOR A BET

FREDVILLE OAK, KENT

ONE OF THE TWO LARGEST OAKS IN BRITAIN (THE OTHER IS THE BOWTHORPE OAK IN LINCOLNSHIRE), 40FT IN GIRTH AND AT LEAST 500 YEARS OLD

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