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Action Oak: the £15 million campaign to save our most iconic trees

Oak is woven into our islands’ DNA. Britain’s druids staged rituals in oak groves thousands of years ago. They’d sacrifice a white bull or two, clamber up into the branches for some mistletoe berries, and make sacred elixirs to cure infertility. Then there are the 446 British pubs named the Royal Oak. As any half-decent pub quizzer will tell you, that’s all about how King Charles II hid out in Shropshire’s Boscobel Oak after losing the Civil War.

The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn wrote that oaks were “the pride and glory of the forest”.  “[Their] cultivation is of the utmost consequence to the nation,” Evelyn told his readers – not least as a key plank in our defences. Close to 6,000 hardy oaks went into HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship.

Launching Action Oak

Today, however, the great British oak is under threat - and the nation is rising to its defence.

The majestic oak has been important to us for centuries (Photo: WTML)
The majestic oak has been important to us for centuries (Photo: WTML)

No less a conservationist than the Prince of Wales is a supporter of Action Oak, a new £15 million appeal launched at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. The aim is to raise funds to investigate oak health and the Woodland Trust is firmly on board, helping partners at Kew, the National Trust, Woodland Heritage, the Forestry Commission and the Prince’s own Duchy of Cornwall to plan an assault on the mysterious syndrome known as Acute Oak Decline (AOD).

What is Acute Oak Decline?

Symptoms include weeping black gouges on stems and trunks, a tell-tale ‘stag’s head’ thinning of the crown – and too often, death. And though it is being seen all over southern England, no-one is quite sure whether AOD is a disease or brought on by a combination of environmental factors – climate change, historic droughts or pollution.

Government is also joining the battle. Lisa Smith, head of tree health policy at Defra, says: “Landowners were telling us stands of trees hundreds of years old were keeling over. This is our most iconic tree, and creating a fund researchers know exists will make things happen.”

Action Oak’s programme will research genetics and metabolism, disease and environmental stresses. It also hopes to spread best practice for oak husbandry and put in place a new nationwide monitoring scheme to track the age, health and distribution of our mighty oaks.

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Valuable ancient oaks are dotted all over the UK (Photo: WTML)
Valuable ancient oaks are dotted all over the UK (Photo: WTML)

Ancient oaks are priceless

It’s possible that there are more ancient oaks in these islands than in the rest of Europe put together - 112 oaks in England alone have a circumference of nine metres or more, making them at least 850 years old, compared to Europe’s recorded 97. The benefits they bring are beyond price. A single 400-year-old ancient produces 234,000 litres of oxygen a year, and it’s thought oaks may support more than 2,000 species of bird, insect, fungus and lichen.

Recording our heritage

Our aim is to not only protect the oaks we have, but to help guard and grow the ancients of the future. Woodland Trust volunteers are on the front line. Over the last decade they’ve stretched their tape measures around more than 70,000 remarkable oaks nationwide, logging the vital statistics on our Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI). They include people like retired engineer Brian Jones of Ross-on-Wye, who has 7,000 ancient and veteran trees to his name – and recently recorded 130 in a single day.

The Trust has also invested £85,000 in a new study at Nottingham University, where mathematical biologist Victoria Granger’s computer model uses the ATI’s 170,000 volunteer records to predict where other hotspots for ancient trees might be. There are hundreds more out there, unrecorded and vulnerable. With Victoria’s model and an influx of even more volunteers, we hope to send out tree-hunters to find them.

The mighty Cadzow oaks are 700 years old (Photo: WTML)
The mighty Cadzow oaks are 700 years old (Photo: WTML)

Growing oaks for the future

Finally, as we all know, mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns. So the Ancient Tree Inventory’s lead verifier for Scotland, Fife-based volunteer Judy Dowling, has contacted two prisons, Cornton Vale near Stirling and Castle Huntly near Dundee, to ask whether inmates will help grow on oaks germinated from the acorns of Hamilton’s famous 700-year-old Cadzow oaks. Agreement and a bumper crop of acorns this autumn could bring chance to preserve and continue that remarkable genetic heritage.

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The full version of this article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Broadleaf, our quarterly magazine exclusive to members. Its news, features and stunning pictures tell the inside story of how we, our volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To receive your regular copy and exciting welcome gift, become a member now