By Ian Bushell
Southwick Country Park has a number of veteran oaks and ten ancient oaks. There are no hard and fast rules about when and why an oak tree becomes classified as veteran or ancient; in different environments and soils oaks grow at different rates and girth is only an indicator. Here the underlying Oxford clay provides an excellent medium and the trees are large and shapely.
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 invertebrate alone.
The majority of our oaks grow in the ancient hedgerows in the park; these hedgerows are at least 200 years old. Where oaks seem to be standing alone, old maps show that they were once part of a hedgerow, that has been grubbed out probably during the 1960s/70s, to enlarge fields to better use the modern agricultural machinery.
stand-alone oaks (by DKG)
The majority of the park’s 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: the thick trunks of veteran trees with a ‘coronet’ of mature branches spreading out; but no great height.
lapsed pollards (by SMH)
A well managed hedgerow lets the tree develop well, with sunlight reaching all parts and little or no interference from competing trees and undergrowth. However, in SCP there has been little or no management of the hedge rows for at least 30 years. In some areas, where new copses of trees have been planted and where the hedgerows, especially the blackthorn, have grown around the old oaks, they have stifled the original hawthorn hedging and competed with the trunk and lower branches of the tree for sunlight, and the roots for nutrients and water. This means that the tree’s trunk remains bare and some of the lower branches have died back, putting greater strain on the upper branches to keep the tree alive and growing.
primroses, bluebells and wood anemones (archive)
The Countryside Team and FoSCP began a programme to reverse this last year with the aim of saving these glorious features of the park. We have reduce the old hedges under the trees to their original chest height, removed bushes and trees that are interfering with the spread of the lower branches and cleared the area under the canopy. Where necessary, paths have been diverted and brash barriers built in line with the canopy to protect the root system from compression.
Tree surgeons have been brought in to reduce the weight on the end of some branches to prevent them breaking, and to provide props for large limbs that may be susceptible to breakage if left to the elements. First results have been most encouraging. Regrowth on the trunks and lower branches, now they get the sunlight, has been good. It has also encouraged dormant woodland plants under the canopy such as bluebells, primroses, wood spurge and wood anemone.
This is a long term programme, there are some 200 notable trees in SCP, and we have only done about 15% so far. FoSCP always welcome volunteers etc.
Header picture by DKG