The Mighty Oak

The oak has for centuries been a national symbol of strength and durability. The mightiest oaks can live for over 800 years old, which has earned them their reputation as a solid and dependable place to shelter and as an icon of reliability.  They stand firmly rooted in both folklore, and the landscape around us. So today, to mark the launch of a new Charter for Trees, 800 years to the day from the signing of the original Charter of the Forest, we wanted to celebrate our oak woods and the essential role they play as a refuge for wildlife.

Regularly lashed by the wind and rain driving in from the Atlantic, the upland oak woods of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve form a part of Britain’s temperate rainforest; a habitat of high importance which just happens to sit in some spectacularly scenic valleys.

Ancient oak woods of East Dartmoor
Ancient oak woods of East Dartmoor

So, why are they so important? What is it about these oak woods that deserves this life-giving reputation? It is well known that an individual oak can support over 350 species of insects as well as numerous mosses, ferns and other plants. And here, on the side of Dartmoor, is some of the purest air where assemblages of rare lichen grow, covering the mighty branches and gnarly twigs of one of our favourite trees.

Lichen covering oak twigs as the new leaves emerge
Lichen covering oak twigs as the new leaves emerge

But, that’s only part of the story. Looking a bit deeper, literally into the dark cracks and crevasses of these ancient woodland guardians, a wonderful world of nocturnal activity is going on. One of our rarest bats lives here, roosting in the trees. The barbastelle is an oak wood specialist, relying almost exclusively on the cracks, splits and flaking bark of the East Dartmoor oaks to make a home. Foraging at night, their prey comprises many woodland moths and, to sustain a colony of bats, the food supply needs to be reliable.

The black arches - a night-flying moth
The black arches – a night-flying moth

One of these woodland moths is the black arches moth. It is also a resident in these woods, and what, you might ask, is the most important food source for the black arches caterpillar? It’s the oak, of course. The tree provides both food and shelter for the moth and the barbastelle, but also the tawny owl.

Further down the tree where a thick, emerald carpet of moss wraps around the trunk, another woodland predator is searching for food. After a heavy shower, when the spongy moss is laden with fresh rain water, a tree slug slowly makes an appearance. While it is not one of the scarce species, it is yet another that depends on the perfect conditions provided by the Atlantic oak woods. Emerging from beneath the moss, though, is a real speciality of the Dartmoor woods. The beautiful, blue ground beetle is a genuine rarity and, at night, it may be seen following a slug trail. Catching up with its prey, it will use its large pincers to grab the slug, inject digestive juices and suck out the soup, expanding its body to make room for the meal. Nobody said that wildlife should have good table manners!

Elsewhere in the woods, another oak tree is home to one of the most admirable of woodland birds. Nesting in tree holes and sometimes nest boxes, the pied flycatcher migrates from Africa each year to make the oak woods of East Dartmoor its home. Every spring, the oaks and the sunny spaces in between, provide the perfect habitat for this little black and white bird to perch, catch flies and raise a brood before heading south again in the autumn.

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Pied flycatcher [Malcolm Burgess, RSPB]
These amazing tales are just a few highlights of a year in the life of one of nature’s steadfast sentinels; the backbone of the woods of Dartmoor. From the woodland butterflies basking on the leaves of the canopy to the small mammals lodging in holes beneath the bark or the endless array of fungi on a decaying branch on the ground, the oak trees of the west have many more wild species to shelter and more wild stories to tell. Through the tempestuous wind, torrential downpours and occasional burning sun, they will always be the mighty protector and a focal point for life in the ancient oak woods.

You can find out more about the Tree Charter at 
The launch of the Tree Charter is also featured on BBC’s Countryfile – you can view the 5th November Autumn Special episode here

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The dormouse can build nests in the safety of a hole in an oak tree

Blog written by Matt Parkins

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