November 2015 - Oak


Oak trees seen on walk from Little Melton to Great Melton showing environment for wildlife among the roots

Oak trees, the symbols of strength and endurance, sometimes referred to as the kings of the forest, belong to the genus Quercus, which in turn belong to the Beech family of trees. Oaks can live for over a 1000 years, and can reach up to 40 meters (125 feet) high, supporting a huge range of wildlife, including insects, mammals and birds, during their lifetime. It is said that the largest oak tree in Britain would take nine adults fingertip to fingertip to hug it. Hence the saying 'mighty oaks from little acorns grow'.

They are deciduous trees, losing their leaves in autumn, and producing fresh ones in spring. The fallen leaves break down producing a rich leaf mould, providing food and protection for various insects, including beetles, and numerous fungi. In late spring, the trees produce catkins, wind pollenating the small, yellow flowers, which eventually produce the fruiting bodies, acorns, in autumn.  These provide a major food source for various small mammals and birds during the winter. Squirrels and jays, collect and bury acorns for food during the winter; those  uneaten will grow into saplings in the spring, but these will not produce their own acorns until they are trees of around 40 years old. Oaks are considered to be at their peak when between 300 and 600 years old. The more dead branches, splits and hollows the tree has, the more insects, mammals and birds will benefit. Treecreepers and woodpeckers find food, protection and places to nest. Tawny owls will find hollows in which to nest. Certain bat species and squirrels will find places to raise their young, and to hibernate in. Invertebrates will find protection and food. Interestingly, the leaves, so valued by many caterpillars and leaf beetles, are poisonous to horses and cattle, as are the acorns. Swine, however, can consume leaves and acorns safely, in moderation.

Oak has been a highly prized as a source of hard, durable timber since prehistoric times. Until the mid-19th century, oak was the choice for ship building. It has been estimated that 2,000 trees were used to make a single ship. Oak is still a popular wood for architectural beams, and is also used for flooring, wine barrels and firewood. It takes 150 years for an oak to be ready to use in construction. Tannin found in the bark has been used to tan leather since the Roman times. Traditionally the leaves, bark and acorns were believed to heal many ailments including diarrhoea, inflammation and kidney stones.

Veteran oaks need protection, like other ancient trees, and this will also protect their wildlife and maintain their landscape value. In Norfolk, this protection is is in the form of an order by the District Council which makes it an offence to cut down, top, lop, uproot, wilfully destroy any tree protected without obtaining permission from this local authority.  The order covers anything from a single tree to woodlands, including hedgerow trees, but not hedges, bushes or shrubs. Further information is available from


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