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The hidden wonders of the noble oak


To the untrained eye, says John Lewis-Stempel in Country Life, the oak tree has an “unremarkable life”. It comes into leaf, its fruit drops, its leaves fall off. But among its “deceptively inert branches” lie all manner of wonders. The oak’s fissures “are, quite literally, crawling with creepy-crawlies”: some 1,178 invertebrate species, with 257 of them solely reliant on this type of tree. Plus 100 types of moth, 108 fungi and more than 700 lichens. Then there are the birds. The male mistle thrush, a “Pavarotti in feathers”, blasting out a song from the top of the tree. The green woodpecker chiselling a nest in a decaying branch; a nuthatch “almost as colourful as a kingfisher” closing up the entrance hole to its nest with mud. The great tit, the wren, the pied flycatcher with the redstart “hot on her tail”.

Further down it’s just as busy: the vixen and her cubs in their den among the tree’s roots; the fallow-deer buck sheltering from the rain. In the perennially wet bark, a polypody fern grows “as readily as in soil”. In the “open socket wound” where a rotten bough has come down – forming a new abode for the oak click beetle – arrives the floating spore of Laetiporus sulphureus, known as “chicken of the woods”. As darkness sets in, a woodcock “comes patrolling through the shadows”, snaffling stag beetles, millipedes and other snacks. Later, a tawny owl “sits as still as a stump”, silently listening to “the pitterings and patterings” below. A wood mouse finds a stray acorn – then feels talons on its neck and lets out a death shriek. It’s “an old sound under the oak in the copse”.