Hooray for old oaks of England, may they rot on
An oak tree supports a huge variety of species, particularly insects and the Jay bird
Please add the oak tree to the list that includes the Tudor rose, St George’s Cross, fish and chips, cricket on the green and Strictly Come Dancing as potent symbols of Englishness.
The oak tree epitomises strength and longevity and our interdependence and emotional associations with the natural world, past and present.
There are two native species of oak found on Hampstead Heath. There is the good old English oak, widespread across all of lowland England, and the more Celtic-tinged sessile oak, which is widely distributed across the north and west of the UK but rare in this part of the world. The sessile oak on the Heath owes its presence to the sandy soils of the Bagshot Beds on the Heath’s upper slopes and the sandy-clay soils of the Claygate Beds on the middle slopes.
An oak tree supports a huge variety of species, particularly insects. It is bursting with biodiversity, the best tree we have in this respect. A non-native tree like the sycamore can be helpful to wildlife in supporting decent numbers of a limited number of species, but the variety of species that a sycamore nurtures is vastly inferior to that of the oak.
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Many insects want a piece of the oak tree and as well as eating it and hiding in its nooks and crannies, some will lay their eggs in different parts of the tree. This may result in the formation of weird, alien growths called ‘galls’. It ‘grows’ this structure to protect itself, but at the same time this structure offers the growing insect a safe place to feed and develop. Think of a gall as a creepy-crawly-infested wound on a tree.
Oak trees are the big daddies of the woodland. An old saying tells us that they take 300 years to grow, enjoy 300 years of stability and then take 300 years to die. This prolonged demise provides the opportunity that many invertebrates, fungi and other creatures need to get a foothold in the tree. Rot holes, storm-damaged limbs, sap runs and hollowed, gnarled trunks all provide places to live. It takes a woodland habitat riddled with decline, deterioration and decomposition, full of failing timber, to provide a happy home for nuthatches, lesser spotted woodpeckers and treecreepers.
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Of course, the challenge for the City of London Corporation on Hampstead Heath is to maintain a good age mix of growing, mature and dying oaks in an environment that receives seven million visits each year. We use very sophisticated tree management techniques that make trees as secure as possible, while retaining as much rotting wood as possible.
One bird that is attracted to the oak tree at this time of year is the jay. Jays are graceful in flight and their plumage is peachy, complemented by bold splodges of black and white and finished off by bright blue wing patches.
You can see dozens of jays on the Heath at the moment. Watch them commute between oak tree and grassland, mouths and throats bulging with acorns ready to be secreted in underground caches.
Follow the Corporation of London Hampstead Heath Conservation Team on Twitter @CityCorpHeath.