06 February 2015

Britain’s most valuable trees

Trees have sustained mankind for millions of years. They provide us with oxygen, food, fuel and shelter. But for some countries, trees have done even more. Throughout Britain’s history, we’ve been fortunate to benefit from some extremely valuable and extremely hard-working species of tree. They’ve protected us from invasion, tamed our landscape, powered our economy and helped to make our country and culture what it is today.

At Nationwide, we’re supporting trees’ contribution to Britain and the world by by planting a tree for every current and future employee. That means we will be planting more than 20,000 trees over the next 12 months and at least 3,000 trees each year.

And in this piece, we’re celebrating four species of tree that have played particularly valuable roles in shaping the history of Britain:

Oak (Quercus robur)

Indisputably the great British tree, the iconic oak has single-handedly done more for the construction and protection of this nation than any other. It was the building material of choice for the Romans (its Latin name meaning ‘hard timber’) and countless original beams still prop up ceilings in centuries-old houses up and down the country. Yet it wasn’t until this tree was called up for military service that it found its true calling.

The oak’s iron strength and hardwearing nature made it the most sought-after wood for the hulls of early Royal Navy warships, helping Britain to become the finest maritime nation in Europe and a leading economic powerhouse. Sailors knew it too. ‘Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men1,’ sang Nelson’s men at Trafalgar in 1805 by which time the oak was more than a tree – it was a symbol of liberty, the impenetrable wall of wood that stood between Bonaparte and Blighty.

The demand for naval timber took a heavy toll on the country’s population of oak trees, with a single ship-of-the-line requiring the wood from 700 mature trees2. The response was a state-sanctioned scattering of acorns3. The Forest of Dean became an oak factory and landowners were encouraged to do the patriotic and profitable thing with royal societies giving prizes for the most industrious planters. Even naval officers on leave did their bit, surreptitiously dropping acorns from holes in their breeches in the grounds of their hosts. We can still see the results of their efforts across the countryside today.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

It has a reputation as one of the most beautiful woods you can find – clean, creamy white, flecked with whirls and grains and resembling ivory once it’s sanded and polished. But don’t be fooled by its pretty looks; the Hornbeam is as tough as it gets, and it’s certainly pulled its weight where Britain’s economy is concerned.

For more than two thousand years, ploughing a field in this country meant shackling up a team of six or eight oxen4, and to attach those huge animals to your plough you needed a huge beam of wood twelve feet long that could take a colossal amount of stress. Step forward Hornbeam. The clue was in the name, ‘horn’ being Old English for hard and ‘beam’ meaning tree. At a time when any community lived or died depending on the success of its crops, it was absolutely indispensible to life in Britain.

But hornbeam wasn’t finished. Its intractable core strength gave it an essential role in Britain’s industrial development5: mill cogs, pulleys, winches, coach wheels and mallet handles were all hewn from hornbeam before steel became widely available. And retirement is still a way off: today the wood is called on for piano parts, parquet flooring, chess pieces and chopping blocks.

Willow (Salix alba Caerulea)

“Leather on willow”: it’s a phrase that epitomises the British summer – and is driving a growing industry fuelled by one of our country’s most sought after trees. Cricket-bat willow is a fast-growing, moist and straight-stemmed tree, which produces a uniquely resilient but lightweight wood. From Lords to Australia via India and the West Indies, there’s nothing better for hoisting a cricket ball over a boundary rope.

Cricket-bat willow sits at the heart of a growing British industry, with high demand for quality bat timber from these shores6. India and Pakistan alone import £2 million-worth of cricket-bat willow every month, and with 138 trees likely to earn around £40,0007, it can be a very profitable tree to grow. Some forward planning is required, though. Trees need to grow for twenty years before they’re ready for harvest.

After being split and shaped into bat shapes or ‘blades’, the wood is sealed at the ends and air-dried before being graded. Grade 1 being the finest, creamy, blemish-free wood; Grade 4 a little less perfect. All are then passed on to bat makers who press the wood at a pressure of up to 2,000 lbs to strengthen its fibres. A cane handle is spliced on before the blade is finally ready for shaping by hand, sanding and waxing, and preparing for its moment of glory.

Yew (Taxus baccata)

It’s difficult to overstate the impact the longbow had on British history, establishing the country as a dominant military power between the fourteenth- and sixteenth-centuries. A devastating, accurate and rapid-fire weapon, senior officers were still suggesting that British army be equipped with it after the battle of Waterloo in 18158, when cannons and muskets were standard equipment.

The best longbows were made of yew. Staves were cut in winter when no sap was running, before being seasoned and worked on for as long as four years9. Highly trained archers could use the resulting weapon to fire twelve arrows a minute, with the best managing double that. And the results could be devastating: an arrow from a yew longbow could wound at 230 metres, kill at 90 and penetrate armour at 55 metres.

The longbow was most famously and ferociously deployed during Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 when his Anglo-Welsh army of bowmen were said to have fired 1,000 arrows a second. The white flight feathers so littered the ground after the battle that observers wrote that it looked like snow.

Yew’s other remarkable quality is its astounding longevity. In a churchyard near Powys in Wales, a yew credited as Europe’s oldest tree has been dated back a mind-boggling 5,000 years10. At Doveridge, Derbyshire, another is thought to be over 1,400 years old and the spot where legend says the master-archer himself, Robin Hood, married Maid Marian.

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