Well, yes, I know this is a blog about three Guisborough oak trees, but sometimes it’s nice to have little adventures looking at other special oak trees as well.
The Woodland Trust’s interactive Ancient Tree map is a great place to start investigating. Records seem a lot more sparse in the North of England which may be the result of there being less ancient trees or fewer people recording them. It is probably a combination of both.
So on the 20th May I was joined by Jacky Watson on the edge of the Cleveland hills to hunt down a renowned ancient oak at Ingleby Botton and also to try to find the Medusa Oak on the Ingleby Incline. Megan and I had tried to find the Medusa Oak last month but it eluded us. By the way, it is Ingleby Botton not Bottom (in case you think it is a typo). I always thought it was bottom, being at the base of the hills but it is Botton, which is dervived from the Norse word botn, which means the innermost part of a landform such as a valley or fjord. This aptly describes this deep valley that cuts into the moors.
We are distracted from our mission even as we pull on our walking boots and make difficult decisions on the “take waterproofs or leave in car” debate by the flamboyant ariel acrobatics of swallows and house martins. Jacky expertly points out how to distinguish between them, as each year I seem to need reminding how to tell apart the swallow/swift/martin triumvirate…
And we are off, to be distracted again by a series of enchanting copses of alder trees that have developed in the wet hollows between the pastures. Most of the alder trees are multi-stemmed, and although this could be a result of coppicing, carried out several decades ago, it seems to me that I only ever see alder as multi-stemmed and wonder if that is it natural form. Last month these were bare stark trunks. Now their ridged leaves are burgeoning and below is a carpet of bluebells and a scattering of stitchwort. Both of us are unhappy with our attempts to capture their beauty on film – bluebells en masse are notoriously hard to photograph. We feel the urge to explore these little fingers of woodland but they are well and truly fenced with barbed wire… and anyway we are on an oak hunt.
At the point of where the Incline certainly does indeed incline rather steeply we take the track to the right and within a few minutes spot what looks like our oak.
And what a tree! Its true magnificence is not apparent from the footpath. It’s not until you get up close that you realise that it isn’t three trees but one single tree, and that the trunk has hollowed out to such an extent that you can walk through it with ease.
We spend time exploring all its nooks and crannies. It certainly ticks all the boxes for having the characteristics of an ancient tree as defined by the Ancient Tree Forum, having a wide girth, rot holes, decaying heartwood, a reduced crown, fungi, dead branches, loose rough bark, missing bark, cavities and sap runs.
This amazing oak doesn’t appear to have a name, which is surprising as it is such a feature. It is simply marked on the Ancient Tree Hunt map with the reference number 38805.
The oak sits unobtrusively between the track and conifer plantation behind. Most of this has been felled, their stumps remaining admist the natural regeneration of rowan, birch and gorse. But what is surprising is that this tree survived when the plantation was first developed. Having just returned from a conference on wood meadows and pastures in Sheffield I saw many before and after ariel photographs of coniferous afforestation on wood pasture sites and in which ancient trees were routinely felled. Our oak, in its younger life, was likely to have been an open grown oak and had a lucky escape, somehow escaping being felled. Perhaps it was too near the path to bother with, a forester went home early or maybe decided it was sacrilege to terminate this veteran.
It would be easy to feel anger at the practices of the Forestry Commission. Many have described their early work as ecological vandalism and unsympathetic to the historic or ecological landscape. However, it is important to remember when and why the Forestry Commission was set up. Woodland cover stood at around only 5% at the beginning of the 20th century with the country importing much of our timber needs. During the First World War, and no longer able to rely on imports, Britain struggled to meet demands at home and also for timber for trench warfare. The government set up the Forestry Commission in 1919 to build and maintain a strategic timber reserve and they were given extensive freedom both to acquire and to plant up land.
Now the economic drivers have changed. I was a member of a board of “Forestry Commissioners” for the North East of England for four years, until 2015, part of an advisory committee to advise the Forestry Commission on strategic matters and areas of conflict. What I saw was a tightly run, evidence based, forward thinking organisation that had embraced a great deal of change and was balancing the needs of the commercial forestry industry (an important economic driver in Northumbria) and ecological and recreational interest – a complex challenge.
It is only since the 1970s that the term ‘ancient woods’ and ‘veteran and ancient trees’ has been coined and their value in terms of biodiversity and cultural heritage recognised. George Peterkin (an eminent woodland ecologist) said at the Wood Pasture Conference that in his days at the former Nature Conservancy Council, these woodlands were termed ‘mature timber habitats’ and that he and the woodland historian Oliver Rackham came up with the term ‘veteran trees’ in the 1970s. He considers that by coining these terms, it helped to clarify the concepts that they represent, enabling their value in terms of biodiversity and cultural heritage to be more widely recognised. The terms caught on, as did interest and research into ancient trees.
Anyway, back to our tree, a relic of a past landscape! It appears to be the only mature tree around. Next to it was the most amazing tree stump. It was so decayed that it was impossible to tell what species it had been when alive, if it had been felled or had succumbed to a natural death. It was a mass of lichen and fungi and heartrot. Growing amongst it was new life in the form of honeysuckle and wild stitchwort.
The battery of my camera decided to die, and Jacky has kindly let me use her photos – her camera has a much better zoom anyway.
Now, being a good conservationist, I am well aware of the need not to disturb dead wood micro habitats, but who can resist taking a peek under bits of loose bark and turning over logs… which we carefully replaced. However, one bit of bark on the trunk does come away on my hands, and I have to place it rather guiltily to the side of the tree.
We investigate a log that has now lost its bark next to the tree. It is full of life, with spiders’ webs, millipedes and a fast-moving centipede. Some very large holes demonstrate that it has been the home to beetle larvae that have emerged into adulthood. They are large exit holes, much larger than the ones scattered around the heartwood of the trunk.
After careful consideration we decide that this log doesn’t belong to the oak as we can see no branch stub and after hunting around a bit higher up the slope we realise that it is the same dimensions of some others in the felled plantation, so it is likely to be from a more recent conifer.
We sit down in the springy sward in he shade of the oak to have our picnic, greater stitchwort and ferns unfurling around our feet, and feel grateful for this day, the spring, the sunshine and being in this beautiful landscape. We notice a few small seedlings of rowan and birch. Between bites of cheese and pickle sandwiches (caramalised onion chutney courtesy of Lewis and Cooper, highly recommended), I mention to Jacky about how difficult oak finds it to establish under its own canopy and how uncommon it is to see an oak seedlins or sapling. She points out one a few yards away, which we coo over and then we see a second, a third, a fourth! I feel the urge to put a little protector around them to keep off the nibbling teeth of rabbits and deer. These are descendants of this mighty tree and demonstrate that despite its old age and gnarled appearance, it is still producing viable acorns.
We contemplate how old this tree could be. it is recorded as having a girth of 10.75m but although there are all sorts of tables and equations one can use to correlate the girth of a tree species to its age, it is an inexact science. Trees, even of the same species, grow at different rates, depending on their environment and their rate of growth and this can also change throughout its lifetime. Various people have guestimated that this oak may be 400, 600 or even 800 years old. Who knows which is the best estimate? I feel no need of a definite figure though – it all adds to the mystery of this gnarled, knobbly old tree, which may continue to live for a few hundred years yet.
We decide to continue our expedition to find the Medusa Oak. We have an eight figure grid reference from two sources: the Ancient Oak Map and Mick Garrett on the Geograph website. However, yet again the tree eludes us. It is somewhere in the rocks above the footpath amongst the tangled regrowth of rowan, birch, gorse and sycamore that has replaced the coniferous plantation. However, the terrain is so steep and rocky and covered in trees, it is impossible to search. Jacky scans the foliage with binoculars to see if she can pick out oak leaves but no luck.
But it isn’t a completely wasted journey. We stop to photograph a striking patch of bugle, its deep purple foliage and lilac flowers contrasting with the spring green leaves and tiny acid yellow flowers of crosswort and whilst she is preoccupied with that I watch a lazy bumblebee in the nearby bluebell. But the more I study the bee, the more odd it looks. Somehow its body is too long and its face isn’t quite right… and then I notice its wings. After a while it pulls its head out of the flower to reveal a long proboscis, and I realise that it is a bee fly, which I have heard about but never seen before. It is obviously ambivalent to all the attention it is receiving and Jacky is able to photograph it:
On the way back we see a tiny oak that is rooted around a boulder which may have been what the Medusa Oak started off as a few hundred years ago. And then it starts to rain. Back home for tea!