By Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer
The mighty oak is our most iconic tree, a symbol of strength and endurance with huge historical and cultural significance. The Major Oak is the most famous, still standing proud in Sherwood Forest amid the ghosts of Robin Hood and his merry men. It’s at least 800 years old, a truly ancient giant whose spreading limbs are now propped up by an artificial forest of walking sticks, yet still growing strong. Here in Sussex, the Queen Elizabeth Oak in Cowdray Park is a similar age but a completely different character, short and squat with a huge, hollow trunk some 13 metres in circumference. But one thing she has in common with the Major and every other oak in the country is the wealth of wildlife she supports.
At least 2,300 different species can be found on oak, more than any other native tree species. Thanks to its large size and impressive lifespan, the oak plays a unique role in woodland ecosystems, with a single tree providing a range of micro-habitats each harbouring a huge variety of life. The deeply fissured bark is a vast, craggy mountain range to the tiny insects that shelter within its cracks and crevices. Mosses and lichens dot the bark landscape with miniature trees and shrubs, full of microscopic life. Larger holes, splits and cavities provide nesting opportunities for birds, from the tiny Treecreeper to the wise old Tawny Owl. Woodpeckers make holes of their own, chiselling out the perfect nest site and drilling into the bark to feed on wood-boring insects, grubs and larvae. Bats roost in bark niches too, emerging at night to feed on the oak’s flying insect residents. More than 100 moth species are associated with oak, their caterpillars devouring the summer leaves alongside sap-sucking aphids and miniscule mites. The Purple Hairstreak is the only butterfly whose larvae feed exclusively on oak, while Purple Emperors dance in the canopy. Rooks nest here, squirrels dance their courtship and Stag Beetles battle on the branches. Acorns provide a seasonal feast adored by Jays, whose forgotten winter caches spring to life as the next generation of oak, with a thousand years of life ahead.