our village, Bale, has as its crowning glory a grove of Mediterranean quercus ilex, holm oaks, or evergreen oaks. including saplings and stumps there are twenty one of them. this tree has a North Norfolk connection, a story about Italian marble brought for the decoration of Holkham Hall, packed in tuscan ilex branches. there were acorns, which were planted, and holm oaks grew to be fashionable, so that local gentry and others interested in the culture of trees planted them around the coastal hinterland. perhaps the milder climate near the sea suited them.
the Bale story is about its famous millennial pollard oak, ten metres in girth, shelter variously for a cobbler and his family, pigs, sheep – by 1860 it was dead and carted off to Fakenham in pieces, bringing staring crowds to the streets, to be used in the tannery. holm oaks were planted in its place and have grown into a magnificent group of trees, their high crowns interconnecting and dwarfing the church tower.
in Spain and Portugal evergreen oaks form part of the dehesa, a landscape of wood pasture, traditionally grazed by sheep and goats, and the black iberian pigs, where the trees are rigorously pruned, producing sustainable firewood, acorns for fodder, and a large shady canopy, but not a very tall tree, about half the height of these monsters.
treated like this they live for around four hundred years. sadly our trees are not even going to manage half that. they may look magnificent, but they are suffering, probably due to our wet cool summers (they survive wet and frosty winters in Extremadura) and perhaps their very size, due to fertile soil and those cool wet growing seasons.
many of them are partially hollow and infected by bracket fungus, the emergence of the fruiting bodies of which show that it has taken most of the strength out of the tree. one has a hornets nest inside a vertical crack from the height of a man to to the ground. where branches have been removed in the past, it has made the trees more unhealthy – they tend to develop pockets of rot. this must be to do with our climate, since holm oak in Spain stand up to any amount of branch removal.
this one has no apparent problems, so that’s good to know.
it’s a really big specimen too
but the one next to Sharrington road, the one all the cars park under, is not in good condition, and will be pollarded.
this is the one with the hornets’ nest, and it will be cut to about five metres high.
the rest of this little group on the corner are quite poorly too, but the NT are hoping they will go a few years more without any treatment.
this tree has an unsound branch over the churchyard which means unbalancing the tree unless as much is taken off on the other side, so that is a fairly radical prune, it will mean pollarding it as well.
and this one has a dangerous branch in the centre, if only that was removed, the wind would bring the rest down, so it also has to be pollarded.
it is going to look quite different and not magnificent any longer with four stumpy trunks cut out of the canopy, with fuzzy bits growing out of them as they start to recover.
this morning we stood out here in below zero temperatures and discussed this with the local National Trust Head Warden, David Wood. Bale Oaks cause him a disproportionate amount of worry; every time there is a high wind in the night he is over here in the morning, making sure that there have been no accidents.
a small flock of pinkfoot geese flew over us, an interesting example of faunal recovery, indeed population explosion.
so we go from this
to this – and this pollard was cut four years ago, after a big branch had fallen off onto the road – you can still see the dent. the wood of the holm oak is extremely dense, which makes the branches very heavy, more likely to break off, and more likely to cause damage. in spain they are very dangerous in the event of fire, as they smoulder and are almost impossible to put out.
in the long term, when there is space and light for planting, they will be replaced, and the plan is to try to reproduce the huge pollarded English oak that was the famous oak of Bale. this is such a long term plan that one can hardly imagine it – seven or eight hundred years of tree cultivation, with all the risks of disease and accident – the original oak survived wars, famines, pestilences, changes of religion, of regime, the Little Ice Age. we have climate change too, diseases brought by global trade, and pollution, and who knows what in the way of political economic and cultural stability – what a project! meanwhile we will have to put up with a stark and unsightly gradual dissolution of our beautiful Spinney, but there are more possibilities for how to replant as the holm oaks die, in addition to the Oak project, and the NT seem to be open to that.