There are 450 species of oak in the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, plus a few hybrids. Many can be found in Kew Gardens - or at least, 52 different oak leaves there. What we call the common or English oak, Quercus robur, (or Q. pedunculata), grows all over Europe and Asia, but in Britain has a distinctly imperialist image.
'Heart of oak are our ships', etc. dates from the eighteenth century Earlier, in 1662, John Evelyn embarked on his classic, Silva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, to prevent 'the sensible and notorious decay of our Wooden Walls'. Evelyn recommended that 'His Majesty's forests and chases be stored with this spreading tree at handsome intervals, by which grazing might be improved for the feeding of deer and cattle under them, benignly visited with the gleams of the sun, and adorned with the distant landscapes appearing through the glades and frequent valleys; nothing could be more ravishing. We might also sprinkle fruit-trees amongst them for cider...'
Only 200 mature trees were left of the old Forest of Dean when it was surveyed in 1667, and Evelyn's advice was heeded, except perhaps for the fruit trees for cider. An open pattern of replanted forest was established, and echoed in many a park. Some land was enclosed for plantations.
The demand for oak timber continued. In 1812 it was stated in a parliamentary report that no less than two thousand well-grown oak trees were used in the building of one 74-gun ship. Thousands of acres of the New Forest were enclosed for planting oaks and here many old trees have survived the age of wooden ships.
Large old trees with spreading, angular branches were especially valued by the ship-builders for their 'knees and crucks'. Timber, before the days of power saws, was shaped with the adze along the lines of its growth, at least tor large members forming the hulls of ships and the roofs of buildings. Trees of the right shape and size had to be searched out in the woods, and they were bought as standing trees, gradually increasing many times in value as they were sawn and transported to the docks or building sites. Large trees were not so much felled as dismembered; the great branches sawn off and lowered by tackle and even the trunk bisected as it stood. A tree in Monmouthshire took, 'Five men twenty days stripping and cutting down. sin two sawyers were five months converting it, Sundays excepted'. This tree was over 400 years old. In 1810, 'the bark alone fetched £200, and the tree when sawn, £675, though the owner only had £100, because it was sold as a standing tree thought to be unsound.'
Oak bark was used by tanners. The whole tree is rich in tannic acid. The leather industry was also supplied trom coppices all over the country which were regularly stripped of their bark. The old used bark was often spread on the streets near a house where someone was ill, to deaden the sound of the horses' shoes and the rumbling of carriage wheels.
Our old oak trees tend to be picturesque rather than useful and as H.L.Edlin points out: 'we have little good mature close-grown high forest, and hardly any of this of natural origin. The few good stands that have survived the wars were mostly planted by early nineteenth century landowners'. With oak trees, as you see, we are in a world of economics, where the users of one century suffer from the habits of the previous two. But the timber of the Common Oak, whether English or not, remains the most durable and strongest. More or less modern applications are docks an lock gates, boats, chassis of heavy vehicles, the beds of heavy machinery, an railway sleepers. In smaller sections, but its strength still important, are the arms of telegraph poles, ladder rungs, wine barrels, flooring, panelling and furniture. It is also very good fuel, and we can suppose that most of our native forests went up in smoke.
But the use of trees, though sometimes excessive, has not necessarily ever been the first cause of reducing the woods. Grazing and clearance for agriculture are the real cause of woodland decay. Of course, exploitation of the trees went hand-in-hand with clearance, but where there was a known demand, such as for charcoal in the ironworks of Sussex, or even for 'coals' in the gentry's houses, steps were taken to ensure the future supply, either by organised coppicing, which left the trees to grow again, or by merely lopping above the height of grazing animals (which at least lengthens the life of the tree). The result was the perpetuation of some woodlands, not their destruction.
Oaks were valued for their acorns or mast. Rights ot common pannage or mast existed from early feudal times until the enclosures in the late eighteenth century, and still continue in the New Forest. In the Domesday Book many landlords returned estimates of their wood lands and wastelands expressed in terms of the number of swine they would feed. Other common rights allowed villagers to remove wood for repairing farm implements, 'ploughbote', and hedges, 'haybote', and for building and fuel. Dead wood could also be removed from the trees by hook and crook. The right to feed swine was the least destructive of trees (pasturage was the worst, and turbery, the right to cut peat, also killed seedlings).
The swine were gathered under some particularly productive oaks (or beeches) and roughly fenced in for a day or two while the swineherd played on his horn. The beasts learnt to associate the music with the rich feed, and the herdsman could then control them in the open forest. For all the natural super-abundance of seed that the swine removed, they trampled a few acorns into the ground, safe from the wood-mice, and likely to germinate in the spring when the pigs would be elsewhere (mostly eaten).
Oaks still account for one third of our hardwood trees, and this appears to be a norm for the 60 centuries it has been established here. During this time the native forest has shrunk to a scattered part of our seven per cent of trees on the land. After the early post-glacial preponderance of birch, then pine, and the enormous spread of hazel, the amounts of oak pollen deposited in peat came toa peak in the wet Atlantic period. There must have been dense, high, oak forest. The average frequency increases towards historical times, while hazel, equally widespread, decreases from the massive totals of the Boreal period to 60 per cent and less of the total pollen of other trees. (Hazel, Corylus, pollen is treated separately by paleobotanists, partly because it could be confused with that of bog-myrtle, and partly because hazel is classed as a shrub. The picture that emerges, to my very inexpert eye, is of great oak forests spreading and thinning out, with other trees, over a country much of which was under hazel trees.
The hazel which started as a shrub layer under the Boreal pines retreated again to its shrub status under the oaks, after probably acting as nursery to them.