OAK IN LEGEND, HISTORY & NATURAL HISTORYDR PATRICK HARDING – 13th MARCH 2017

A wide sub­ject you would think, but Patrick Harding did more than justice to it.

Oak trees seem to be as famil­iar in Great Britain to the Ancient Britons as they are to us today. A local giant oak is situ­ated in Worsborough, which is about 1,120 years old. Estimates sug­gest that oaks have grown here for at least 10,000 years, and earlier still before the ice age when they tem­por­ar­ily dis­ap­peared.

Pliny, a Roman writer, men­tions ‘goose barnacles’ grow­ing on oaks, which he said even­tu­ally turned into barnacle geese.

The Green Man appeared as a myth­ical male head sur­roun­ded by oak leaves in medi­eval carvings situ­ated in churches — such as at High Bradfield — and cathed­rals.

Stag headed oaks, Patrick explained, are phe­nom­ena of age. It takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to con­sol­id­ate and finally 300 years to die. In those last years, fewer nutri­ents are sup­plied to the top of the tree so dead branches are left.

Royal Oaks are so named because the future King Charles II hid in an oak tree whilst escap­ing cap­ture in 1646. Scottish oaks were men­tioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill.’

In earlier times oaks were felled whilst still quite young. Apparently, the lack of strong axes didn’t allow for felling when larger. And cop­picing was used extens­ively for pro­duc­tion of fuel and char­coal. Because of oak’s dur­ab­il­ity, it was used in the build­ing of houses and barns. And oak pegs were used in cruck joints instead of iron nails because mature oak is too hard to bang nails into. This method is still in use in cathed­rals and churches.

Oak is used in the man­u­fac­ture of bar­rels, tubs and vats. Natural wood tannin acts a pre­ser­vat­ive in the stor­age of whisky. It is also used in leather tan­ning and for strong wheel spokes. Early 19th cen­tury car­riages used oak as a pre­ferred mater­ial. The pro­duc­tion of char­coal, the smelt­ing of iron and glass making all used oak.

Ships of all sorts were con­struc­ted for trad­ing, fish­ing and pleas­ure, and the Royal Navy relied on oak for strength and endur­ance. The wood lent itself to provid­ing nat­ur­ally shaped knee joints, ribs, keels and deck­ing. I wonder how many tons of oak were con­sumed in large ‘men of war’ ships and, of course, in the lesser craft.

The number of para­sites, insects, fungi and dis­eases which afflict oak trees is aston­ish­ing. Changing cli­mate tem­per­at­ure and rain­fall also afflict oak growth, unless you may be like some who deny cli­mate change and global warm­ing, in which case you can forget the warn­ings.