Sunday, 6 January 2013

A natural history of Norfolk in 100 species: Number 1

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

 This is my personal selection of the 100 species that ‘make Norfolk’ Your list might be different of course. However I guarantee that should you take up my challenge of finding these 100 species then you will end up exploring many of Norfolk’s varied landscapes, you will have visited some of Norfolk’s most special nature reserves and have discovered for yourself a huge amount about the range of wildlife habitats that make wild Norfolk simply the best county in England for wildlife. Yes, I know I’m biased, but Norfolk, with the Brecks, Broads, Fens and its varied coastline, is home to some very special wildlife. You might also end up visiting some quite odd places, from museums to city centres and from farms to forestry plantations if you do decide to track my hundred down. Follow my 100, whether virtually through these weekly posts, or by taking up the quest to track them down in the wild. Either way will hopefully take you on a fascinating journey exploring how these 100 species link in all kinds of strange ways to Norfolk’s past, its present, its places and the fascinating ways people and wildlife together have created its present.

Let us know how you get on. I would welcome your own local stories, folklore, unusual Norfolk facts or any unusual experiences of these 100 species. Did any of these species change your life? 

Many of the species on my 100 are extremely common. Indeed common species are often more important in creating our landscapes than the rarer ones. So no apologies that number 1 on my list won’t pose you too many problems to find – it’s certainly big enough, been around long enough and is common enough to be familiar. But did you know?

Species 1

English Oak (Pendunculate Oak) Quercus robur

Oak tree, David North
‘Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn.
Greater are none beneath the sun
Than oak, and ash and thorn.

(Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill)

Trees are our past and our future. 

I’ve no idea how many oaks there are in Norfolk but it’s said there are 200 million oaks in the UK. In the past we might have been rocked as babies in cradles made from oak and on our deaths had our bodies buried in oak coffins. While that may no longer be true there are still plenty of people in Norfolk who eat sitting at an oak table, and live in houses held together with oak beams. Oak is one of our commonest trees and in a recent study Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson found that English oak was not only the commonest deciduous tree in Norfolk’s woodlands it was also found in more than 50% of Norfolk’s hedges.

The links between this tree species and people go back to the dawn of time. Some of the flint hand axes mined at Grimes Graves were doubtless used to fell oaks to clear land for farming and for timber for building huts. Flint hand-axes have been shown to be surprisingly effective at felling small oak trees. 

The Bronze Age timber circle found on the tidal sands at NWT Holme Dunes was constructed of oak posts with a central upturned large oak stump. Amazingly, through dendrochronology, which uses the annular rings of trees to date timber, the central stump of Sea Henge has been dated to the year: it was felled in 2049BC.

What would Norfolk look like today without Norwich Cathedral, great timber barns like Waxham, stately houses like Blickling, Felbrigg and Holkham? But of course none of these would exist without huge quantities of oak. Oak timber was crucial in the past for house building, firewood, iron working, glass making, blacksmithing, lime kilns, ship building, salt production, leather tanning, barrel making .... The list goes on. From the Romans onwards early industry demanded huge quantities of wood for brick making and metal smelting, and the best available wood was oak. A single ship, HMS Victory, of our great Norfolk Admiral, Lord Nelson, used 6,000 trees in its construction of which 90% were oak. 

At the time of the Norman Conquest the value of woods was measured in pannage for pigs – the number of pigs that the wood’s acorn crop would support. Woods were managed deliberately to favour the valuable oak. The timber ( for building ) would be valued and sold separately from the wood ( for firewood or uses such as tool handles and hurdles). Ancient woodlands were managed by coppice (rotational cutting of trees) for wood at the same time allowing other trees to grow tall and straight ( as standards ). You can still see this system of woodland management practised at NWT Foxley Wood, Norfolk‘s largest remaining ancient wood, which has been woodland for at least a 1,000 years and perhaps far, far longer. Norfolk’s great oak woodlands would have supported lost industries like charcoal burning. And at NWT Foxley Wood stripping the bark of oaks to supply the leather tanning industry in Norwich was one major use.

Acorns, David North
It’s not surprising that the oak is our national tree, that acorns and oak leaves have appeared on £1 coins in recent times, and that we still venerate our ancient veteran oaks in the landscape, even giving some of them names. Ancient Norfolk oaks include the King and Queen oaks at Fairhaven, said to be 900 years old, and Kett’s oak near Hethersett where rebels gathered before marching on Norwich in July 1549. There is even a Hitler oak in the Broads. This was given to Chris Boardman by Adolf Hitler who, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, presented all the medal winners with small oak saplings. The maturing oak now grows behind How Hill house.

The Druids are said to have worshipped in sacred groves of oaks and to have cut mistletoe with golden sickles in their ceremonies. Do we still venerate the oak? Well its said that every Cathedral in England has a carved image of oak leaves and acorns. In Norwich Cathedral it won’t take you long to find a green man peering mischievously from his garland of oak leaves. 

There are many well known saying about the oak. ‘Three centuries growing, three centuries standing and three centuries dying’ is one that attests to the longevity of this tree. Some oaks must be among the longest living inhabitants of Norfolk.

In both wildlife and landscape terms even today the oak is of prime importance. Oaks are said to support more than 500 species of invertebrates, more than any other native tree. A veteran oak is an ecosystem in its own right, its cracks, crannies and crevices providing homes for bats, owls, woodpeckers, fungi, lichens and countless small insects. Its acorns will support squirrels, once red now grey, badgers, mice, voles and of course jays, nature’s way of transporting acorns to distant places where the jay conveniently buries them!

In a recent survey by Norfolk County Council all the living trees in Norfolk thought to predate AD1450 were oaks. The largest oak having a girth of 9.7 metres. If you wish to see veteran oaks then visit NWT Thursford Wood. There are many wonderful, ancient oak pollards there.

In the Norfolk landscape oaks still dominate, both as roadside trees, sometimes stag-headed, and often ivy covered, and in woodland where they frequently form the largest part of the canopy.

For the future, long may Norfolk oaks continue to lock away carbon from the atmosphere in their timber, moderating our human folly in changing the climate. Oaks give us shade, shelter us from winter winds, clean our air, release oxygen from their leaves in spring and summer and pump water into the atmosphere freshening it. They provide branches for birds to sing on and for children to climb. Long live the oak!

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every full grown tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.
(Martin Luther)

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