If Robin Hood is one half of the Sherwood story, it’s the ancient oaks that complete it.
This collection, of almost 1,000 native sessile and pedunculate oaks and their hybrids, many of them over 500 years old, make Sherwood unique. The forest is one of the finest surviving examples of birch-oak forest in the UK.
This area has been wooded for centuries, and until about 1,000 years ago, covered almost a quarter of Nottinghamshire. Our modern day definition of a forest and woodland is pretty much interchangeable, but way back the “forest” would have been the preserve of the nobles, essentially an uncultivated area set aside for hunting. The vast Royal Forest of Sherwood, which belonged to the monarchy for almost 600 years, would have been far less wooded – a few trees surrounded by grazing pasture and heathland was the ideal terrain for hunting.
While it remains Europe’s largest collection of ancient oaks, it has been significantly depleted in the last 300 years. Not only has land been cleared for farming, but whole generations of oaks were used to build everything from homes, barns and civic buildings, including St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe, to Nelson’s naval fleet, and the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Throughout the history of the forest, the oaks have been important. In hard times, acorns and bark would have been used as a replacement for flour, and today they provide invaluable sustenance for wildlife. The ancient oaks in particular, are uniquely vital to some species, because of their age. They offer food and habitat that younger oaks and tree species don’t – part of the reason that managing the forest is as much about dying and dead trees as it is new or young growth.
We’ve been referring to The Major Oak by this name since around 1790, when it was already 600-800 years old, taking its name from Major Hayman Rooke, an historian who devoted much time to studying the tree. Prior to this, it was also known as The Queen Oak and the Cockpen Oak, from its time used to hold cockerels before a fight. Nobody knows exactly why it has grown to this size – 10 metres in circumference at the bottom of the trunk, and with a canopy of 28 metres across. But its original forest landscape would have meant reduced competition from other trees. There are theories that it was formed of a number of saplings fused together, or pollarded with the intention of more quickly growing a crop of oak for felling. It’s been supported by scaffolding since the Victorian era – without that, this mighty oak, weighing in at around 23 tonnes, would not stand for long.