Could climate change put an end to the English oak tree?

At about 1,000 years old, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire is no stranger to climate change. For this great tree’s first few centuries, England was balmy, her weather comparable to that of present-day southwestern France. Then, the country entered a long cooling phase that, perhaps, has only recently ended. Along the way came shorter trends that felt permanent enough to those who lived through them—for example, the dramatically colder and wetter weather that arrived in the 1590s and deepened over the following century. Having witnessed it all, sometimes battling, usually flourishing, the Bowthorpe

Oak now finds itself in circumstances almost as comfortable as those in which it germinated. It’s not the only such long-surviving specimen. Britain’s oaks, Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, are tough. That’s why we revere them as national emblems, why they’re found wild in a wide range of habitats across Europe, the Near East and North Africa and why they’re grown with such success in Australia, where they’ve escaped from parks and gardens and naturalised in conditions that England, even according to the most alarmist climate-change projections, is never likely to share.

According to a doctoral thesis emanating from a Dutch university, however, climate change will transform Britain so radically that oaks will be disappearing by the 2080s. Moreover, along with spruce and pine, they will no longer be viable commercial forestry trees. This, as the dissertation itself admits, is all prediction and based on premises of which no one can be certain. Nonetheless, Forestry Commission scientists are heeding these prophesies.

There has been much talk of how we’ll have to relinquish the oak in favour of redwoods and Cryptomeria, even though the last of these requires very peculiar climatic conditions—Japan’s—to perform well.

There has been next to no talk of the loss to Britain’s natural and cultural heritage or of the myriad organisms that are associated with oaks and other broad-leaved trees and which would perish in a coniferous monoculture.

This policy of pessimism is being advocated for wild and mixed woodlands as well as for mass plantations. For commercial forestry, it’s good news, a licence to breplace slow-growing native hardwoods with yet more aliens that’ll sprout like mustard and cress. For the rest of us, it’s a disaster. Britain’s trees deserve more dogged and sceptical guardians: let us appoint ourselves to the job and stand like the Bowthorpe Oak.

* This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on August 13 2014

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