Sunday, 12 October 2008

Put your faith in trees, not paper

In an uncertain world there are some things that are givens and the best of these have had as little to do with man’s tinkering as possible. One of them is the oak tree - a symbol of merry olde England if ever there was one. In a world that's in a constant state of flux at the moment it’s reassuring to learn that a natural feature can still be relied on to enhance our environment.

Oaks were native to Britain in the prehistoric era before they were finished off by the ice-age and driven southwards to warmer climes. Then, gradually, they made their way up from the Med into northern Europe again.

The tree was sacred to the Anglo-Saxons and Druids and by the middle ages the native oak, Quercus robur, grew extensively in woodlands throughout the south east and central areas of England. For centuries it's been used for timber framed houses and barns, cathedrals and churches: the wood warmed houses, the tannins preserved leather, ships were built of oak timbers.

But although we can now manufacture materials as durable as oak and more stable it is good to know that the oak tree still has a vitally important role to play. As far as biodiversity is concerned, the native oak tree supports more wildlife than almost any other tree. Over 400 species of insects and fungi can exist on one specimen which in turn attracts a wide variety of feeding birds and many small mammals.

The Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris, a native of southern Europe and further east, was re-introduced to northern Europe in the eighteenth century. It reached Britain in 1735 at the time of Trafalgar in an attempt to boost oak supplies for ship’s timbers. It is possibly the fastest growing of all oaks in this country and is easily identified by the winter buds and the acorn cups being hairy.

As our climate changes we have come to realise that the return of this oak may help our birdlife survive warmer temperatures. The Turkey oak’s particular claim to be truly beneficial is because gall-wasps like to lay their eggs on it. A gall forms round the eggs to protect them and birds (those such as tits which are now laying earlier in the year due to a warmer climate) rely on them to feed their young.

The oak has always featured in literature and here is a rhyme by Geoffrey Grigson that demonstrates just what a large part it played, from cradle to grave, in the lives of men throughout history.

Wae's me, wae's me!
The acorn is not yet
Fallen from the tree,
That's to grow the wood,
That's to make the cradle.
That's to rock the bairn,
That's to grow to a man
That's to lay me.

And it is still playing an important role in all our lives: it’s a small ecosystem all on its own and something we can continue to put our faith in. No matter what state your finances you can now gather an acorn, plant it deep in the earth and watch something worthwhile grow.


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