Book Review: Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape

Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.
Aljos Farjon, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2017. 348 Pages.

There are more ancient oaks in England than in all of continental Europe. How is that possible? One would expect to find the reasons in aspects of climate or soil, but Aljos Farjon has come up with a different answer: it is humans and in particular privileged hunters, rather than the environment, that are responsible. When the Normans conquered England’s green and pleasant land in 1066, they were delighted by the hunting grounds they found in forests there. To ensure they were not spoiled, they created Royal Forests, chases, and deer parks, where only the nobility could hunt or keep deer, and where wood cutting was forbidden. They thus became early conservationists, for different reasons than today’s environmentalists, perhaps, but effective nevertheless.

The oaks in these protected forests continued to be preserved in later centuries, due in part to the private ownership of parks (the principle of primogeniture kept estates entire through the generations, in contrast to the subdivisions dictated by the Napoleonic Code in Europe) and the conservatism of landowners. Other contributing factors were the availability of timber overseas and the absence of ruining wars. By the time modern forestry took hold in England after World War I, it was too late to destroy the worthless old and hollow oaks. In continental Europe, modern forestry was introduced over 200 years earlier, with devastating results for ancient trees. The result of this combination of factors is that England has a unique population of ancient oaks (Quercus robur and Q. petraea) that are highly important for biodiversity.

Botanist Aljos Farjon, born in the Netherlands and formerly on the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is well known for his work on conifers, having published several books on the subject. Now retired and an Honorary Research Associate at Kew, he has focused his passion for dendrology on the ancient oaks of England, his adopted country, and applied his skills as a writer, scientist, and photographer to telling the story these veteran trees. And a thrilling story it is, beginning with a detailed account of the various stages of an oak’s life cycle (formative, mature, veteran, and senescent), moving through painstaking data analysis concerning the trees’ distribution and dimensions. Much of the information derives from the author’s own research, with the remainder made available by “citizen science” (data gathered by volunteers across the country). Ancient oaks in Europe are also considered and analyzed, with Sweden taking second place in the rankings: southern Sweden has substantial numbers of oaks with girths ≥ 6.00 m, though in an area similar to England there are only about one third as many ancient oaks as there in England. The impressive biodiversity associated with oaks is described in a separate section of the book, where the significance of veteran oaks for fungi, lichens, and invertebrates is explained by three experts in these fields.

Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape combines botanical and historical insights, eloquent graphs and maps, and beautiful photographs of stunning oaks. It is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in oaks or dendrology.