This English oak is easily missed, to the point where I didn’t notice it was an oak until looking at the photo later. This early spring sunshine is the kind that brings people to sit underneath trees, like the man in the distance on Clapham Common. His bike is resting against the trunk behind him.
Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Royal Parks. It’s home to an absurd array of veteran and ancient oaks. Some of the older trees show clear evidence of pollarding, but no sign of anything recent. It was a wet and windy day in south-west London, your camera equipment has to be as tough as oak to stick it out for long in these conditions. I’ve overexposed some of the images as it was so dark and dreary, and oak doesn’t burst with colour in winter. The park itself is a shock to find, a vast expanse somewhat pegged back by the constant chunter of traffic passing through.
Tree: Old common boundary of Hounslow Heath, Hounslow, west London, November 2016 Species: English oak, Quercus robur Age: Between 200-300 years? Status: Under attack
This phone photo was all I could take at the time of this sprawling specimen, so let’s consider it a sketch. It was on the western edge of Hounslow Heath in west London. I know less about west London’s natural history than the south, though I am familiar with the Crane valley. This oak is probably a coppice or a felled, accidental coppice, which has regrown. It is well-climbed but showed signs of charring from fire at the base. Gorse nearby had been burnt in what are considered arson attacks. In many ways the fact this tree is not older and more cavernous and has fewer points of entry for fire may protect it. Hopefully the arsonists – common in urban nature reserves – grow out of it or else are prosecuted.
View my full gallery of New Forest photos on Flickr
I hadn’t managed to visit the New Forest since May, when redstarts sang in the woods and the stitchwort and bluebells flourished under the trees. A lot has changed since then, Britain having voted by 52%-48% to leave the European Union. I am pro-EU and on the morning after the vote took place I felt a degree of sadness that The New Forest voted to leave. Why sadness? The New Forest is one of the EU Habitats Directives Natura 2000 sites which is specially recognised for its importance across the whole of Europe. One of the main barbs of the Leave campaign was that somehow the EU was an attack on individual freedoms, especially of local, unique communities in Britain. I disagree with this. The Natura 2000 website recognises that the New Forest is designated as a Special Area for Conservation because of the role that local people play in managing its habitats:
The quality of the habitats of the New Forest, and the rich diversity of species which they support, is dependent upon the management activities of the various owners and occupiers. Of fundamental importance is the persistence of a pastoral economy based on the existence of Rights of Common. The commoners’ stock, mainly cattle and ponies, roam freely over extensive areas of the New Forest, playing a vital role in keeping open habitats free of scrub and controlling the more aggressive species such as bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and purple-moor grass (Molinia caerulea), and maintaining the richness and variety of heathland and wood pasture habitats.
Then again, don’t ask me what I think about the antics of the Leave campaign, nor the failures of Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron in alerting people to the importance that the EU holds/held for the environment. If you’re interested there is a petition asking for the EU environmental protections to be upheld if/when Britain leaves the EU. Yet again our politicians and political system have failed to protect the environment.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s Roydon Woods is one of my favourite reserves to visit. It was silent but for a few flocks of blue tit and long-tailed tit, and one of only a few insects I found was this lacewing larvae (Neuroptera). It was carrying this backpack around, what I think is tied together by the downy hairs of leaves, possibly willow or hazel.
Autumn is a special time, though there has been little rain in recent weeks, there were several large bracket fungi to be found. This is a newly emerging chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).
The solitude of the New Forest – most areas away from campsites, car parks and cycling routes are largely devoid of visitors during the week – means you can encounter some wonderful things. I looked up to find a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) watching me, half way between a field and the woods. There is a clear browsing line in the New Forest and very little natural regeneration of trees because deer and other herbivores, generally New Forest ponies and other livestock, are eating the new growth. Chris Packham has recently said that the New Forest is dying because of over-grazing.
It’s not often that you come across a perfect specimen of a mushroom. Fruiting bodies are short-lived and very quickly deteriorate. To find this giant polypore (Meripilus giganteus) was a moment of sheer joy. As I’ve said in my fungi round-up for last year, I don’t pick them, just photograph them. I’m not precious about this nor hyper-critical of mushroom picking, I just prefer that other people and indeed animals can enjoy them. This mushroom was about 2ft in length and just beside the path. I hope others manage to see it before it decays.
Out on Beaulieu Heath it was drizzling and grey. Stonechats were low in the leftovers of gorse, a flock of medium-sized birds flew overhead and down into the heather which I couldn’t identify. Horseflies dive bombed from the woody margins, the sound of their wings is unmistakable and unnerving. They only want one thing. Along a denser edge of trees and scrub a hare burst free, then came a stoat, turning on its heels at lightning speed to return to the cover of bramble. Spotted flycatcher was also a nice sight at the corner of Lodge Heath.
In the Frame Heath Inclosure forestry operations were underway with mature sessile oaks (Quercus patraea) being harvested. I’ve been reading about the Forestry Commission’s attempts to remove broadleaf species like this from the Forest in the 20th century. It took ministerial intervention and local opposition to stop a near complete shift to conifer plantation.
Sitka spruce (Picea sitkensis) is one of the preferred species for foresters. They are shallow rooted trees liable to windthrow in more open landscapes. This spruce had been taken down by just that, a large hole bored through its middle where the soil had fallen away.
The gentle giants of English oak (Quercus robur) are far ‘happier’ standing alone in the landscape. The reason they are not surrounded by regenerating trees is because of the aforementioned grazing taking place around it. Give me these beautiful old trees any day over a spruce or pine monoculture. We should be thankful to all the people who have fought to fend off intrusive forestry practices in the Forest.
It is these ancient and veteran trees that makes the Forest so unique in Europe. The number of these old trees draws the breath, in areas which are not Inclosures where oak, pine or spruce are planted in regimental fashion for timber, there are just so many of them to be found.
Balmerlawn is close to Brockenhurst and hosts two spectacular old English oaks. This one has a trunk about 6ft and I would approximate it to be over 500 years old.
Next door to it is a younger oak with a massive ‘wolf branch’ as arborists call it, reaching out towards the road. Where it swoops closest to the ground there are two patches where the grass has been worn away by kids jumping up and down over the years. It’s a dream to climb.
For the past five years I have been searching hedge lines, woods, parks and boundaries for the undulating mass of an old oak. This search has not taken place in the English countryside, instead the border of the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. The southern towns of Southwark were once the parish of Camberwell and its boundary with Lewisham still supports centuries-old oak trees that were the previous markers between old Camberwell and Lewisham. Along with the Dulwich Woods and One Tree Hill, these trees are the strongest ties to the much diminished Great North Wood.
The Great North Wood
The Great North Wood was a landscape of woods and commons that stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. It was worked over centuries for its timber and underwood (sessile oak, hornbeam and hazel, mainly) for ship building, tannin extraction and charcoal burning. Its origins are in the wildwoods that spread after the end of the last glacial period 10-12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene. The oaks remain where other species have disappeared as they are tough, long-living (sometimes 800 years in open land) and are of great use to our species. The Forestry Commission approximates that London’s trees are worth £43billion in their environmental and amenity value. Oaks are some of the most important. Their carbon storage capabilities should be remembered by those controlling planting regimes in cities today.
This old image (likely early 1900s) shows what One Tree Hill’s western slopes were like. The earlier map, dated 1799, shows that One Tree Hill was an isolated ancient woodland. It once connected with the Dulwich Woods which skirt the left hand side of that image, and spread even further before humans began managing the woods. That could have been thousands of years ago, however. The Dulwich Woods are very likely several thousand years old. There is no woodland at all but plenty of shrubs, likely including gorse and hawthorn. The landscape swelling into Lewisham shows much of south London’s old landscape was farmland. The boundaries of the farms were marked by old oaks.
One of the first mistakes made by those (myself included, of course) looking for old trees in the landscape is to head for woodland first. The oldest trees are usually living in isolation in what has longest been open land. The great Oliver Rackham told us that ‘ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees’. The best trick is really to get an old map, compare it with a current one and see if there are any clear boundaries where trees may have been planted or perhaps wild trees maintained as standards. Sometimes the old maps show trees dotted along the edges. The image above is a pollarded English oak (Quercus robur) at the entrance to One Tree Hill on Honor Oak Park. The tree is actually in the grounds of the Honor Oak Allotments and a line of similarly old oaks can be found running up alongside it.
This oak, one down from the previous, has clearly been pollarded (c.1900s) and is now swamped by other trees. Logic says that pollarding it again and removing some of the surrounding growth would allow the trees to re-balance and go on living indefinitely, but experimental pollarding taking place in Epping Forest suggests otherwise. Lapsed beech pollards are known to die when pollarded again. These oaks may be so unused to management that pollarding them will kill them off. We may have to accept that these landmarks of the Great North Wood have a limited time left.
The Oak(s) of Honor
One Tree Hill is a good case study for remnant Great North Wood sites as it was open land until the mid-20th century but was woodland on the north-western slopes up until the 1840s. Today it is returning to woodland having been largely managed through non-intervention, bar access works and hedge planting, by the Friends of One Tree Hill and Southwark Council.
One Tree Hill gets its name from the single English oak (pictured) which was replanted in 1905 when the hill was reopened to the public after a battle to save it from becoming a golf course. 15,000 people conducted a mass trespass on 10th October 1897 to challenge the Honor Oak & Forest Hill golf club’s attempts to fence and enclose the hill.
The previous Oak of Honor was thought to be much older and was a boundary tree for the old vice-counties of Kent and Surrey. It was also the edge of the Honour of Gloucester’s land. The idea is that in 1602 Queen Elizabeth sat under the tree and was thus honoured thereafter. Today the Oak of Honor is the most obvious tree to seek but by no means the oldest. I love that it has so influenced local place names. An old black and white photograph of the former oak (the church building can just be seen in the top right) gives the sense that the oak was not so old, perhaps only a few hundred years before it perished. This tree was destroyed by lightning in 1888.
To the right is the oak of Honor when it was only a decade old. The open landscape of early 20th century Honor Oak/Forest Hill is filling up with housing. The tree cover on the hill was largely hawthorn scrub, as can be seen behind the caged oak.
It’s worth remembering that though we are fixated by neat and tidy trees in urban areas, often for safety reasons, that oaks provide habitat for a great number of species. The Oak of Honor in September 2015 held many knopper galls, the protective case for a gall wasp (Andrus quercuscalicis), and oak apple galls.
The top of One Tree Hill is an excellent spot to find butterflies in spring and summer because it is open and sunny. This speckled wood (Parage aegaria), one of the contemporary Great North Wood’s most common butterflies, was enjoying some September sunshine on the great tree’s leaves.
The winter months provide ample opportunity to find nuthatch (Sitta europaea) which is often tied to oaks because of the invertebrates it forages from the bark and the old woodpecker holes it nests in. It makes a neat mud ring around woodpecker holes to make the entrance smaller and more protective for its young.
The purple hairstreak was the first ecological record at One Tree Hill when it was mentioned for the first time in the 1766 publication The Aurelian by Moses Harris. This overlooked butterfly was ‘commonly taken in plenty in Oak-of-Honour Wood, near Peckham, Surry.’ It’s one of the insects promoted by conservation groups in the Great North Wood, a good indicator of long-term woodland cover, especially at nearby Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. The purple hairstreak is only usually seen by those straining to look up at the canopy or those lucky enough to stumble across one when it’s down and dazed on the path.
The oldest of One Tree Hill’s oaks is likely to be this lapsed pollard (whereby a tree is cut higher up – coppice is cut at the base – to prevent grazing animals eating regrowth) growing on the path that runs adjacent to Brenchley Gardens. I’ve seen a photograph somewhere of the tree isolated in open land, with Peckham’s farms rolling down to what is now Peckham Common.
The tree, seen here on the right of the photograph (its lean exaggerated by the distortion of my 10-24mm wide angle lens) is competing with the seedlings that have likely fallen or been stashed by grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and members of the corvid family, especially jays (Garrulous glandarius). You could suggest that the new woods of One Tree Hill are products of its old boundary oaks, where the dominant species is oak. Recent research has uncovered how important crows are in establishing new oak woods across the northern hemisphere.
One of the lower limbs is rotting nicely and providing habitat for slime moulds and small mushrooms, whether this is a bonnet (Mycena) or a parachute (Marasmius), I couldn’t tell you. The life that old oaks can support adds to the tree’s immense amenity and ecological value. Oaks typify the anthropomorphic but no less accurate notion of trees being ‘accommodating’ to many species.
Next door to One Tree Hill and its allotments is Camberwell New Cemetery, a more authentic remnant of Honor Oak’s open landscape of the past 200 years. One boundary, otherwise planted with Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), has two old English oaks. One has been hollowed out, possibly after being struck by lightning or affected by human damage. It’s an example of trees as habitat, something which people are generally uncomfortable with at first, especially with fungi as they think the tree is dying. In August 2015 the hollowed oak had the fruiting body of what I think was chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphurous). Oak supports many insects and also fungus. The oldest oaks you are likely to find will be dependent to some degree on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Fungi can also help the oaks by removing bits of deadwood that may otherwise add extra weight to the tree as it ages. Some species are necrophratic and will eventually kill a tree because they ‘take more than they give’.
On first thought I was suspicious that the two oaks seen here might be the same two on the allotment-cemetery boundary. This is a photo from the 1920s that shows Camberwell New Cemetery and the Honor Oak Recreation Ground as open land being grazed by a flock of sheep. Evidently the sheep were used to keep the grass short for golf, or maybe also as a way to support a local farmer. The golf club house can be seen in the distance. The building on the hill in the distance is St. Augustine’s Church (1872-3). These two trees are too far away to be the same as those above, they are probably instead some of the black lines that can be seen in the distance. Note also the absence of any tree cover on One Tree Hill beneath and to the right of the church. Between the mid-1800s and this point, there ancient woodland had been well and truly grubbed out, possibly even some old boundary trees going as well. Today, this would be unacceptable.
Instead, I think this image of the old golf club house exhibits the line of oaks. These oaks look to be dying back, possibly because of the impact of building the club house where the trees’ roots were. The distance between St. Augustine’s and the line of trees is one parcel closer than the previous image (Steve Grindlay).