Skip Navigation

Oak: the past, present and future of one of our best loved trees

Oak is one of the UK’s most beloved species of tree. Renowned in history and legend, the oak is home to thousands of species and has been valued for centuries for its societal and economic benefits. It is our second most common broadleaved tree, and there are more gnarly old oak trees in England than in the whole of Northern Europe put together. The latest issue of Wood Wise, our tree and woodland conservation magazine, explores the story of our beautiful oak trees.

A nation built on oak

This issue tells the story of oak, beginning with how this species contributed to the rise of the UK as a superpower. Over the centuries, oak has been used to build ships, wine barrels and the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, heated homes, fuelled iron works and fattened swine.

Across the UK, many individual oak trees have interesting stories, such as the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. With a girth of 12.44m, in the mid-18th century 12 people comfortably sat inside its hollow trunk for tea!

Lincolnshire's Bowthorpe Oak is one of many UK oaks with an enormous trunk (Photo: Julian Hight)
Lincolnshire's Bowthorpe Oak is one of many UK oaks with an enormous trunk (Photo: Julian Hight)

This is just one of 115 living oaks in England with a girth over nine metres. The unique history of England’s landscapes has led to this uncommon preservation of large, old oaks. There are almost no comparable sites in Europe with concentrations of ancient oaks as high as in England.

The importance of oak to wildlife

Wildlife depends on oak even more than people. A total of 2,300 species depend in some way on oak, be that for food or shelter. In fact, 320 species rely completely on oak and would be lost without it.

Some of the latest research looks at which other trees may support these species if oak numbers were to decline. This research is essential as oak is under more pressure than ever from multiple threats, including

  • climate change
  • pests and diseases
  • pollution
Oak trees provide essential food and shelter for all kinds of for wildlife (Photo: Aljos Farjon)
Oak trees provide essential food and shelter for all kinds of for wildlife (Photo: Aljos Farjon)

Oak health

Sadly there is an increasing decline in oak tree health from such threats. What’s more, many potentially deadly pests and diseases are on the horizon. Acute oak decline in particular is becoming more widespread. This is a phenomenon in which trees enter a steep decline in health.

Fortunately some recent initiatives give cause for hope. They include Action Oak, a partnership being developed to encourage action by managers and the research community.

Valuing oak

Oak is an ideal species to use as a lens through which to reassess how we value nature. This value needs to be recognised and realised across society. But is there an easy answer to the question of how much an oak tree is worth?

As always, this issue is packed with information and beautiful images. Our expert contributors include published authors, academic researchers and Forest Research’s chief scientist.

Read the full articles

Download Wood Wise now