Roger Ratcliffe - Why the mighty oak tree is a national treasure

Descending through the heather and long abandoned quarries on moorland above Keighley, the path suddenly wound into a sloping patch of woodland and I found myself ducking to pass beneath an old oak tree which had spread out its abundant limbs at all heights and angles.

Sherwood forest's famous Major Oak tree, where legend has it that Robin Hood used to hide out. The species has been at the heart of Britain's industry and can virtually be described as a national emblem. Picture by Chris Lawton.

While the process of autumn colouring and shedding of leaves on its neighbouring birches and rowans was all but complete, the oak’s canopy was still thick and green.

It was an English oak, also known as the Pedunculate oak, so it will drop all those leaves eventually, although some trees are known to cling to them right through winter before the new growth of spring forces out the stalks and their by-then leathery leaves.

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There is an evergreen member of the family, the holm oak, which is also known as the holly oak, that is native to Southern Europe and has been introduced to the UK, but this is impossible to confuse with its English cousin because its leaves are glossy and, rather than having the instantly recognisable lobes of an English oak leaf, are spiny like holly leaves.

No one could call the oak I found growing on moorland particularly majestic, and I doubt the species would ever have become virtually our national emblem if its character had depended on the rather irregular growth of this specimen. Unlike most other oaks I have seen, it spread its limbs low and wide. But on a summer’s day I can imagine it performing the role of the one in George Bernard Shaw’s poem Oak Tree, in which he described his hopes for an acorn he had planted and predicted, “One day it will be a giant oak, to shield me from the sun a sheltering cloak”.

Oaks have given much more than shelter through the centuries. They produced the sturdy beams around which many of our oldest buildings were constructed.

They provided the hulls of our greatest ships like the pride of Henry VIII’s naval fleet, The Mary Rose, Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour built at Whitby in 1764, and Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory.

Oak trees also supplied props for the coal mines that fuelled the industrial revolution, the barrels that allowed distinctive wines and whiskies to develop their flavour, and the best shavings for curing fish at our coastal smokeries. And they were the raw material chosen for the furniture of that great Yorkshire craftsman Robert (Mouseman) Thompson in the village of Kilburn.

The best known oaks are those which have escaped from foresters’ axes and saws for several hundred years, and there are some fine examples in the parkland of Studley Royal near Ripon and Castle Howard to the east of York.

Sadly, though, a bacterial infection known as acute oak decline was first found in Yorkshire trees 12 years ago and has resulted in many being felled. This fact makes me see my ragged, somewhat haphazard moorland oak with rather more affection, and hopefully it will have many centuries of growth left to come.