Magazine article Geographical

Trees of Life: As the Most Common Tree Species in the UK, the English Oak Holds Both a Venerable and Symbolic Place in the Nation's Landscape and Heritage

Magazine article Geographical

Trees of Life: As the Most Common Tree Species in the UK, the English Oak Holds Both a Venerable and Symbolic Place in the Nation's Landscape and Heritage

Article excerpt

Oaks are found across most of the northern hemisphere with approximately 600 species in total. As well as England, the oak is the national plant of many nations, including the USA, France, Germany, Wales, Jordan and Poland, primarily because it symbolises strength and endurance.

Their impressive longevity means mature oak woods are examples of a stable and largely undisturbed environment, rich in biodiversity where many species, from fungi and invertebrates to birds and mammals, thrive throughout the year. According to the UK's Woodland Trust, oaks support more life forms than any other native tree.

Oaks are deciduous and their changing leaf colour is a major attraction for many photographers visiting native woodlands to capture this popular feature of autumn. But when the leaves have fallen and lie mostly forgotten, that is when they are of greatest importance to the surrounding environment: on the ground the soft leaves of English oak break down with ease and form a rich leaf mould beneath the tree that nourishes numerous invertebrates and fungi.


The oak found in most of Europe is the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), and differs from the English oak (Quercus robur) by having stalkless acorns. As many children know, 'big trees grow from little acorns', but an oak is at least 40-years-old before it produces its first acorn and is most productive after 80 years. Acorns are the fruit of the oak and turn from green to brown before falling to ground. Most acorns never get to germinate to produce new saplings the following spring as they are a rich food source for many wildlife species, notably jays, mice, badgers, squirrels and deer, eager to fatten up before winter freezes the forest floor.

During spring and summer, a mature oak 20 metres or more high can provide ideal nesting spots for many birds, while bats often roost in old holes bored by woodpeckers. Owls also use trunk and bough cavities as nests, and with hundreds of insect species in the bark and tree canopy there is a plentiful food supply for all the resident animals.

Oaks also reveal their starkest beauty in winter when hoarfrost or heavy snow creates an image of a bare, almost skeletal tree against a white background --a stark contrast to summer's lush greens. Look for that ideal winter rural image of an isolated oak on a clear day after a fresh snowfall, set against a morning sky of cobalt blue.


For many creatures the English oak is a tree of life, and with so many species to be found, an oak wood offers the wildlife photographer plenty of subject potential for the camera. This is prime habitat for large mammals, especially deer. Red deer are the largest land mammals in the UK, but roe deer are the most widespread and therefore more likely to be encountered. Spotting a truly wild deer in open woodland is not easy because these animals are wary of humans and lie in the undergrowth for most of the day.

When photographing these creatures and other mammals in an oak wood, a slow and steady approach is needed when moving into position. Key tips are to stay downwind of your subject, don't make sudden movements with camera and lens, and maintain a fast shutter speed by choosing wider apertures and faster ISO speeds. Longer lenses are essential to make frame-filling portraits from a distance, and also for depicting mammals in the context of the woodland setting. The versatility of a telephoto zoom provides the options for making both types of image from the same position, without changing lenses.

Other well-known oak wood inhabitants include foxes and badgers. Foxes are active by day, and are most likely to be seen in the early and late daylight hours, but badgers are more elusive, being nocturnal and virtually invisible during winter when they spend most of their time in their setts underground. A typical entrance to a badger sett is a gaping wide hole in the ground, often near the roots of very old oak trees, so should you find one it might be worth waiting patiently close-by--and downwind--to witness any badgers emerging just before dusk. …

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