By Ian Bushell.
Southwick Country Park has a number of veteran oaks and one identified ancient oak, but what is a veteran or ancient oak? There are no hard and fast rules; in different environments and soils oaks grow at different rates. Here the underlying Oxford clay provides an excellent medium and the trees are large. One criterion for assessing veteran trees is those with a girth of 3.2 m are considered of potential interest, and those with a girth of 4.7 m as being valuable in terms of conservation.
Poet John Dryden, in 1668, described it this way: “Three centuries he grows and three he stays, supreme in state, and three more decays.”
The park has several oaks with potential and at least one that is valuable in terms of conservation. It should be noted that old oak trees are very important in regards to species support and conservation, with studies showing that some trees support a minimum of 360 species of invertebrates alone.
The majority of our oaks are found in the ancient hedgerows defining the fields in the park, and these hedgerows are known to have been in existence for at least 200 years. Where oaks seem to be standing alone, old maps show that they were part of a hedge line, these having been grubbed out and ditches in-filled, probably during the 1960s/70s, to enlarge fields to better use the modern agricultural machinery. In addition, following agricultural directives, old ponds were in filled and drinking troughs installed for livestock; the outline of the ponds are still visible and the plinths of the troughs still remain in some of the hedge lines.
The majority of the oaks are lapsed pollards. Originally these trees when young would have been pollarded; having their lower branches removed to provide fodder and perhaps fuel, and other branches allowed to grow before removal to provide beams or other larger pieces of timber for use by the farmers. This practice obviously lapsed in the 18th/19th century which allowed the oaks to assume their present shape, thick trunks of veteran trees with a ‘coronet’ of mature branches spreading out; but no great height.
Photographs by Ian Bushell, DKG & Suzanne Humphries