This morning’s fine weather offered me a rare opportunity to take my camera for a walk with the intention of catching a few landscape photographs, an activity I’ve neglected over the last few months. I ambled between the chicken sheds and out over the parkland, criss-crossed with meandering sheep tracks, then plunged myself into the sudden darkness of the small chestnut wood on the other side. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I became aware that I was standing within a few yards of a muntjak buck, which instantly bounded off, crashing through the undergrowth and disappeared into the trees.

Emerging once again from the wood and blinking in the bright sunshine, I followed a low hedge into a large field recently harvested of its crop of oil seed rape, the pungent smell hanging in the warm air heavy with dust.

This is familiar country to me and I’ve photographed the area dozens of times, but I’m always ready to be surprised. Today however, it was something I’d seen many times that caught my eye but in the past I’d kind of edited out. I found myself really noticing the dead branches of oak trees sticking out at all angles, known locally as stag horns, that scar every aspect of the landscape. On other occasions I’d either avoided these eyesores or simply retouched them out, but today I took a different approach. I recorded them and decided to find out more about this phenomenon that had damaged so many of the oak trees in this region, and that I realised I knew nothing about.

My walk took me in a wide sweep around the parish, through Street Farm and Hall Farm, then back around the church and into the village, arriving home through the woods at the back of the house, a total distance of maybe four or five miles. So I had plenty of time to reflect on what the possible disappearance of this beautiful tree would mean to this region.

Not far from where I live is the Stour Valley, a district known as ‘Constable Country’ or ‘Gainsborough Country’, two of our greatest artists whose paintings record the gently undulating landscape of Suffolk, abundant with Oak and elm trees. The latter have now disappeared completely since ‘Dutch Elm Disease’ decimated the elm population throughout the country. Are the oaks to follow?

When I got home I checked out what might be causing the damage to the trees, and after dismissing ‘sudden oak death’, something common in California and Oregon but yet to get a major hold in Britain, I searched Google for a cause to this slow but clearly quite catastrophic disease.

I soon found a couple of sites published by The Forestry Commission (here and here) that explained much of what I needed to know. ‘Oak decline’ or ‘oak dieback’ is a condition caused by a number of factors occurring in combination. Any healthy oak tree is perfectly capable of fighting off an attack from pests or diseases under normal circumstances, but in a period of drought it can become weakened and vulnerable to such attacks. After several years of dry summers in the East of England the current spell of ‘oak decline’ is thought to be caused by a beetle that attacks the bark, thus further weakening the tree and, in extreme circumstances, leaving it prey to honey fungus which will finally kill it off.

It is the drier areas of England, the central and eastern counties, that are worst effected by this decline in our native oak trees. So is climate change a factor? The Forestry Commission says, “Possibly, but it’s too early to know for sure whether it is playing a role in the current episode. However, we do know that most of the pests and diseases that currently affect British trees will benefit from the kinds of weather, such as milder, wetter winters, that we expect in Great Britain as climate change progresses.”

In the meantime I guess we can only sit and watch as the English Oak, a tree that has come to symbolize the very essence of Englishness, sinks into a slow decline.

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