The Mighty Oak Tree

Paul Hobson starts the year with a look at England's iconic oak tree.

There is no more quintessentially English a tree than the oak. Broad, sturdy, dependable, oak trees are a vitally important part of our landscape. In terms of wildlife there is probably no other tree in Britain that has more species associated with it - living on it, in it and around it.

The history of the oak in the Peak District is a recent one in terms of the age of the earth. As the climate changed at the end of the last glacial period the Peak became Siberian as the area of tundra spread, chasing the retreating ice. Further warming allowed the colder-loving trees like Scots pine and birch to invade the tundra. Wetter conditions caused bog lands to develop on the tops where trees then, as now, struggled desperately to survive. It was about 2,500 years ago that the climate became the one we love today, warm and damp!This is perhaps not always to our liking but it certainly suited the oaks and the more northern parts of the Peak would have been dominated by oak woodland with other trees, like birch, rowan and holly, living in harmony. Further south, on the drier, limestone areas, woodlands were dominated by ash trees. Then Man appeared and as our population rose so did our impact on the natural world around us. As in the rest of Europe, woodlands in the Peak were cleared at an amazing rate to provide land for agriculture and wood for building, then later for the fledgling lead and later still steel chance for many years of good acorn production in the future. And of course each tree only needs to produce one acorn to replace itself.Oak leaves are eaten by more insects than any other UK tree species. Caterpillars abound, like those of the delightful green-silver lines and looper caterpillars are often seen suspended on silken threads. Insect eating birds love the oak. Specialist oak wood species like pied flycatcher, wood warbler and redstart thrive in the Peak's oak woods. All three species of woodpecker can be met, though greens prefer more open parkland such as that at Longshaw.Our best oak woodlands are small, often because they have survived in steep sided valleys or on slopes. Those around Longendale and at Padley are superb examples of probably our nearest woodland to the wild wood of 3,000 years ago. The more refined and cultivated landscape of oak/open parkland such as that engineered by Capability Brown at Chatsworth allows for larger more visible trees with a slightly different set of wild creatures.Oaks are also our most venerated trees, closely associated with the gods of the past, such as Zeus, Jupiter and Thor. The word druid is probably a derivation of the Celtic word for oak. Oak wood is full of tannin, used by the leather industry, which makes it very long-lived as a wood for fence and gate posts. Some of England's finest furniture is also made from oak.Oak woodland and oak trees are a vital part of our county's landscape. They are certainly our most important wildlife tree and because of their usefulness and strong links to our ancestral past, they are definitely worthy of our attention and protection.