The Tree.

The land on which we live and garden used to be a farm until our estate was built on it some 45 years ago. At least in part the layout seems to have been informed by the field boundaries and our garden is bounded on two sides by what is left of the Cornish hedge that bounded the field. Cornish hedges range from well constructed dry stone walls backfilled with soil to soil banks held up by a stone facing on either side. Ours would have been more soil bank than stone wall.

The “hedge” was topped by a hedge. That is to say, vegetation grew along the top of the bank, much of it woody, a mix of native trees plus brambles and wild roses. It was probably kept cut down to two or three feet above the soil bank, perhaps with a tree left to grow at intervals.

In one corner of our garden is an oak tree, growing in the “hedge”, probably part of the original hedge that grew away when the farm became housing. Exactly whose property the tree is on is not clear. The property boundaries as marked on the deeds show a line along the middle of the old “hedge”. But two of our neighbours, marked as 1 and 2 on the diagram, wanted rid of the soil bank and replaced it with a fence. In so doing, both have grabbed a bit of land from us, including the bit that included a quarter of the tree.

The hedge line is 30° west of North/South, so the tree casts its shadow along the fence line well before noon, even in summer.

Neighbour 3 has sheds, big ones, up to our shared boundary. The rest of his garden is paved. He is not a gardener. The tree barely shades his garden. I’ve never met Neighbour 3 and have no idea how they regard the tree.

Neighbour 2 gets shade in the morning, then a brief spell of sun before their house shades their garden for the rest of the day. She wants the tree removed. I know Neighbour 2 all too well, having had dealings with her regarding replacing the “hedge” with a fence. Neighbour 2 would be a hard person to please. She has a husband but his opinion in the matter is unknown.

Neighbour 1 is not shaded by the tree at all but it drops leaves and acorns on the top bit of his garden where he is laying a concrete slab and intends to put a shed and glasshouse. They are not gardeners either.

The view from an upstairs window.

Most of the shade cast by the tree falls on our garden. The prevailing westerly winds mean that most of the leaves fall on our garden. I have bent with the wind and turned that corner into a shade garden, taking advantage of the conditions to grow a range of suitable plants. As the tree gets bigger, and it is in rude health and growing steadily, the shade we get spreads further, especially in winter when the sun is low, though equally, the tree is bare and nothing much is growing anyway. I speak of it as my one tree woodland.

About a year ago I contacted the council and enquired about the possibility of getting a tree preservation order applied to the tree. They sent someone out, who looked at it from various angles, agreed that it was a prominent landscape feature, took notes and measurements and left. We never heard back and I have just looked at the Cornwall County Council Interactive Map and it is not marked as having a TPO. I suppose it may have been designated but the map not updated, but I doubt it.

It may be for the best. At least if I change my mind and we all agree it has to go, we can get it done. I can crown lift it and crown reduce it without needing permission too.

From the Interactive Map, the green dot is how a TPO tree would be marked; this is just my graffiti.

Apart from the fact that I like it and that its detrimental features affect mostly me, it is much the biggest tree in this area of housing and one of the few of any size at all. I strongly believe that urban landscapes need to be broken up with natural features like trees, helping to provide for wildlife and generally improving the look and feel of large blocks of rather uniform housing. There is not a single tree in the whole village with a TPO on it, nor any areas designated as TPO order areas. Time and again trees get cut down around about because the landowners, usually farmers, are not constrained from doing so in any way.

To continue the rant briefly, I despair when I see so much effort going into planting trees and so little into preserving the ones we already have. In terms of carbon sequestration and every possible environmental consideration, that is insane.

The tree is a Common Oak, Quercus robur, one of our two native oaks and much the more common in the south and east of England. They are famously and largely wrongly, regarded as very long lived, based on a misapprehension about their rate of growth, which is nowhere near as slow as it is often thought to be.

Another oft repeated falsehood about oaks is that they are deep rooted. Like many plants, the root that emerges from an acorn goes straight down like a carrot. Even one year old seedlings a few inches tall are hard to pull out. However, in a very few years shallow lateral roots develop and the original root loses dominance and when a big tree blows down, the root plate is as shallow as a beech tree.

There is considerable debate about whether Common Oak is a woodland tree or would more naturally grow in a savannah type landscape. Our tree could have ended up as a farmland tree and might have enjoyed an undisturbed root run in pasture or had its roots trashed regularly by cultivations. Where it is now it has roots under sheds, under grass and under our mostly undug garden. The small sector that is to go under concrete shouldn’t bother it over much, I’d be more worried about the concrete getting lifted. I don’t dig in its root area other than to dig up and plant other things and I don’t encounter oak roots when I do. Most of the leaves that fall in that area are left to rot down; I clean the paths and take them off low plants that they would smother.

It seems like a happy tree. It has grown quite rapidly, it seems healthy and its structure seems sound and robust. It has two trunks from the base which is far from ideal but there isn’t a narrow and weak crotch between them (they may even be separate trees) so I see no cause for concern. Barring hostilities breaking out, it will outlast me. This year it produced a prodigious acorn crop, every one of which seems to have germinated, in most cases putting down a root but not putting up a shoot yet. I let one group of three or four grow about three years ago, thinning them down to one, at a short distance further in to our garden. If the big tree goes for whatever reason, I have a replacement under way.

If I’m still alive and here in 15-20 years time I will plant acorns all over the garden and just let them grow. It can be my legacy.

Through a wide angle lens from the other side of the garden it looks quite small.
Switch to another lens and it becomes a big tree for a small garden. The ivy covered tree to its left is another, smaller oak. I have removed some of the wispy twigs from the trunk but intend to do more at some point.

17 thoughts on “The Tree.

  1. Hello Jim, entirely agree about the non conservation of quite major trees, which are in themselves valuable environmentally and visually, if not individually admired as something special. Unfortunately, as has happened in our area, a TPO is ignored and in the blink of a chainsaw, the tree is felled and a fine happily paid. The system needs to better policed.


    1. I have a suspicion that local authorities are so stretched they probably don’t even pursue prosecutions a lot of the time and people get away with it completely. Then I have a friend locally who felt she had to spend £200 getting a “consultant” to write a report to the council asking permission for removal of conifer branches overhanging her neighbour, a couple of dead trees and a few dead branches.


  2. Too many people, covering too much land, too much land put down to hard standings, and no regard for trees. I have cried over many trees felled on the Saturday of a long bank holiday. Once a tree is felled, it cannot be replaced. May you live long and protect that tree Jim.


  3. It would be a shame to lose the tree. There is general agreement about the value of trees but this one fits the often quoted “Not In My Back Yard” reaction – nimby!


  4. I read Wilding by Isalbella Treeand recall her describing talking to an Oak Tree expert who said that Oak Trees live for 900 years 300 years of growing 300 years of being an ok tree and 300 years of dying. According to google Ancient oaks are 400 years + They are not true woodland trees as in they don’t really thrive within woodland, but on the edge so that they have room for their branches to grow outwoods and provide a home for many insects and other animals. There are many Oak trees on the boundaries of fields and the expert said that most of them are very unhappy becasue they are constantly having their roots ploughed up. Ever since I read that, I look at the oak trees on the side of fields and almost all of them look ‘unhappy’ With broken branches and uneven shape, often with only having leaves on part of the branches. I have assumed that they are trees that were damaged by the great storm of 1987, but if that is true, they are not getting better.
    So if your oak tree looks healthy, its got to be worth preserving. But I am not hypocritical enough to say absolutely that cutting it down would be a sin, after having a mature Ash and Sycamore growing in my garden cut down because their presence would impact negatively on my idea of how the garden should be.
    I have been very aware of there being loads of of acorns around this year, crunching them underfoot in a way that I am not aware of doing in previous years, when out walking the dogs. Don’t know what the significance of so many acorns this year is, maybe the conditions this year were optimal for acorn production?


    1. Wilding was one of my sources but I borrowed the book and have returned it so I couldn’t check the detail. I’ve since read Woodlands by Oliver Rackham and Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and it becomes very clear that the story of a single tree is infinitely more complex than we’ve ever imagined, oaks more than most. It’s virtually impossible not to be hypocritical to a degree; we are animals and depend totally on the ability of plants to capture and store solar energy that we then use for food, shelter, warmth and much else essential to our survival. That we cannot do without destroying the plants in some measure. We take too much at our peril.
      I suspect the abundance of acorns is down to it having been exceptionally hot in May and far more developing than usually do, but that’s pure conjecture.


  5. This is part of my work that I do not miss. I used to condemn trees for removal. The difficulty was clients who wanted me to condemn trees just because they could charge their clients significantly for removing them, or because their clients just disliked the tree, which, in almost all cases, was there long before the client arrived. Developers with foreign accents were particularly offensive, as they spoke to me, a regional native, as if they were doing us all a big favor by providing more homes for more people to move here, into a valley that is already infested with more than a million people who know nothing of what was here prior to their arrival.


  6. I get that trees cast shade, often welcome in the heat of summer. I only have four small trees in my small garden and am lucky to have a little woodland just down the lane that causes no inconvenience to anyone. Trees are pretty rare in West Penwith! And the ones that grow on the hill are small and twisted and lean away from the wind. I hope you hang onto ‘your’ oak, though looking at the map it seems that it is no longer yours.


    1. Earlier this year “they” cleared thousands of trees along the railway line that passes us here, the Plymouth-Penzance line. Railway lines and road verges are wildlife corridors across the desert that is modern farmland, I hope they had very good reasons. It puts “my” one tree into some sort of perspective though.


  7. Don’t let them bully you! You probably have cause to take action against their purloining of your bit of hedgebank, but legal action with neighbours isn’t a good thing! They ought to be proud of that tree.


    1. I don’t suppose the neighbour on whose (partly purloined) land the tree stands is going to be in a hurry to remove it. It would have to come down in small pieces and be carried out through his house, which is the full width of his plot, so no way down the side. It was the previous owner who moved the boundary a bit so I wouldn’t want to start a fight with the new occupants.


  8. Apparently this year was a “mast” year for Oak trees – happens every 5 years when Oak trees generally ‘agree’ to produce a superabundance of acorns, thereby increasing the chances of acorns ultimately turning into Oak trees. But I agree with you I think the weather conditions have also contributed to so many being produced as some years there are hardly any. (It did cross my mind that the oak trees knew something we didn’t)


    1. I read somewhere recently that mast years were becoming more frequent, so presumably responding to a warmer climate or greater stress. Sheldrake talks of an underground network of fungi, linking trees together and carrying information in a way somewhat analogous to nerve cells. We do tend to define sentience and intelligence as being what we have and everything else doesn’t.


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