The legendary Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is reputed to have been the haunt and hiding place of Robin and his Merry Men. The oak’s acorns have been roasted and ground to make acorn coffee and its bark has been used to make a decoction for medicinal purposes. In the New Forest, commoners have the rights of Pannage, this means they are allowed to turn loose their pigs to gorge on the fallen acorns in the Autumn.
Trees similar in appearance to the Oak first appear in the fossil records, the Cenozoic era; the age of mammals who filled the gap left by the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Man has used the oak for many and varied purposes. It has been used for building homes (the Tudors built oak framed houses and barns) and making barrels and casks. Its bark has been used for tanning leather. Oak galls were crushed and mixed with water and iron solution to produce an indelible ink to write on vellum. Being indelible it was much prized for writing legal documents; the Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence were signed with such ink. In 1651 an oak tree hid a young Prince Charles, the future King Charles II following the battle of Worcester and in turn gave its name to many pubs.
Countries have waged war on the strength of the oak; its timber being used to build Massive Warships like Henry VIII’s Mary Rose. England prided herself in her Navy and oaks were specifically chosen from the forests to provide the correctly shaped timbers needed to produce these big warships. The River Hamble had the necessary shelter and resources to facilitate the building of these ships between the 14th and 19th Centuries. A naval dockyard was then established at Portsmouth where building then took place, repairs being carried out on the Hamble.
At Bucklers Hard on the River Beaulieu in the New Forest you can see for yourself the 18th Century ship building village where the ships were constructed for Nelson’s Fleet at Trafalgar.
Having considered how we have made use of the oak for our own purposes, we should now focus our attention to what it gives back to the environment it lives in.
Over 350 species of insect feed on the oak, and 30 lichens can be found on it. This makes it one of our most important trees. Little wasps lay their eggs on the developing buds and acorns causing a reaction from the tree. This is how oak apples and marble galls form. Inside these growths little wasp grubs munch merrily away safe from predators.
One of our native butterflies , the Purple Hairstreak feeds on oak in its larval stage. If you want to see the adult insect though you will need a strong neck and a pair of binoculars. During July the adults fly around the tops of the trees, seldom venturing lower down. They feast on aphid dew secreted on the leaves by these sap suckers. They can occasionally be seen in the evenings coming down to flowers if there is not a lot of dew to be had.
One of our biggest and most spectacular butterflies, the Purple Emperor feeds on Sallow, but having hatched tends to fly high up around the oak canopy looking for a mate and sparring with rivals. Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire is a good place to see this magnificent insect.
Another quite impressive insect to make use of the oak is the Oak Bush Cricket which roams around the tree looking for a tasty snack.
Many moth larvae feed on oak providing food for the local bird population, as the tree gets older its broken branches provide nesting sites for all manner of birds. Woodpeckers and Nuthatches will hollow out rotten trunks and branches to provide a home for their chicks. Spiders and other insects live in the crevices and behind the peeling bark, in turn also providing a living larder for the birds to feed to their young.
Even in death the tree provides for its surroundings, beetles lay their eggs in fissures in the bark and their grubs make short work of the dead wood, recycling it to provide nutrients for the next generation of trees. The Stag Beetle is the largest and most well known of these “recyclers”. Fungi also help to break down the dying trees, returning nutrients to the soil.
The majestic oak tree has not only hidden Royalty, vagabonds and thieves, it also hides its own secret little world that we may be privileged to see and experience if we only have a little time and patience.