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New Old Oaks Found in England

One of the ancient oaks in High Park at Blenheim Palace in the UK - Photo: Blenheim Palace/Facebook

A 900-year old oak tree doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you could keep hidden for any length of time (let alone centuries), but it seems that the English have pulled off the trick. And not just one tree, but over 60, four of which are giants of the genus. How could this be done? Hiding in plain sight, of course. The trees were “discovered” in High Park at Blenheim Palace, one of the most famous and visited ancestral homes in the country.

The news hit the papers and social networks in March this year, announcing that the greatest collection of medieval oaks in Europe had been found in the grounds in what had been Winston Churchill’s home. Credit is due, apparently, to legendary landscape designer Capability Brown, who like great actors understood that sometimes the best choice is to do nothing at all. When hired in 1764 to lay out the grounds at the estate of the 1st Duke of Marlborough (built at taxpayers’ expense as recompense for victorious services rendered during the War of Spanish Succession), he set aside a section of woodland to be left intact, and it is there that the old oaks persisted undisturbed. They were brought to light by Aljos Farjon, Honorary Research Associate Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, when he surveyed the woods as part of a project documenting ancient oaks for an international database.

It is thought that High Park, the section of woodland where the oaks were found, was created in the 12th century by King Henry I (c. 1068-1135), who wanted a forest where he could gallop around on horseback chasing deer with his bow and arrow. The newly-found oaks must have been seedlings at that time, and presumably may have witnessed the medieval royal hunting parties. Following Lancelot Brown’s wise choice to “let sleeping oaks lie” the woodland was preserved as a protected area not open to the public, with only about one person a year venturing into the woods. The result is a biodiversity hotspot, and aside from the ancient oaks, the woodland is home to over 100 different protected and notable species of fauna and flora, amongst them 50 different kinds of beetle and 16 species of butterflies and moths. Says Aljos Farjon: "High Park is in my view the most stunning site in Europe for ancient oaks. No other landscape in England has greater biodiversity, especially from invertebrates, fungi, and lichens."

Dutch-born Mr. Farjon is currently engaged in research for his upcoming publication Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape and on February 18, 2016 gave a lecture on the topic at The Linnean Society in London. A video podcast of the lecture has been made available online by the Society, and you can watch all three quarters of an hour of the fascinating presentation here.

Most of the images published of the oaks are copyrighted, so I won’t post them here, but you can view them in the article published in The Daily Mail’s site, Mail Online . Note that the journalist seems to have had trouble distinguishing his width from his girth, and the oaks are reported as having a diameter of over 9 meters, which of course would make them the biggest oaks in the world. It should be circumference of over 9 meters, which is still monumental. Apparently members of Blenheim Palace’s forestry team believe they have discovered an ancient oak that would surpass in longevity what is considered to be Britain’s oldest living oak, the Bowthorpe Oak. And there’s an ITV News video about the High Park oaks you can watch here and another by the BBC here.

Blenheim Palace is celebrating 300 years of Capability Brown this year, which marks three centuries since his birth in 1716. How appropriate that in addition to commemorating his grand vistas and artificial lakes, this year we should also be remembering him for what he left well alone.