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Oaks are more slow-growing than those latter two species – and as a result can easily become overtopped (and therefore deprived of sunlight and thus killed) by them in dense forest environments.
By contrast, deer parks, consisting of more open woodland, were ideal habitats for oaks to become truly ancient in – and that is what, courtesy of William the Conqueror and his nobles, seems to have happened in England.
William the Conqueror’s victory meant that all land in England belonged to the new king by right of conquest.
It gave birth to a thoroughgoing feudal system in which the King gave land to dozens of tenants-in-chief (his barons).
Tragically, many of them were felled – often in former Royal Forests – to make way for commercial forestry, particularly in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In Europe commercial forestry had started two centuries earlier – and therefore contributed much to the relatively greater paucity of ancient oaks on the continent.
But why have so many more ancient oaks survived in England than have on the continent?
“The Norman conquest not only changed the political structure and direction of England, but also initiated a total change in how much of the English countryside evolved,” said Dr Farjon, author of a ground-breaking new book on England’s oak heritage, , due to be published later this Spring.With the Royal Forests open for the hunt to only a privileged few, and to create their own hunting parks, the aristocracy imported southern Italian fallow deer to populate them (a strategy which was easier to achieve because the Normans also ruled southern Italy).Indeed, within 140 years of the Norman conquest of England, the number of deer parks had gone up almost 60-fold (from 35 to at least 2,000) – and it is in those Norman-origin former hunting parks that about 50 per cent of England’s ancient oaks can be found today.By contrast, the figure for the whole of continental Europe is estimated to be just 2,000 ancient oaks – 1,260 of which are in Sweden, only some 120 in Germany and perhaps 300 in Romania.In terms of 800- to 1,000-year-old oaks, continental Europe has only 85 – 14 of which are in Sweden and 24 in Germany.