Walking towards Lime Avenue, I stop to open a wooden gate on the left hand side which leads into a large grassy parkland field. There, in the middle, reaching their craggy arms skywards, are two ancient oaks.

Oak trees growing in pasture such as this are not necessarily the tallest trees. Only slowly do they add inches and thus strength to their girths in contrast to trees which grow together in woods which tend to hasten upwards. With less sideways space the trees in a woodland need to become tall as quickly as they can to get as much sunlight as possible.

However, these oaks are surrounded by open space and light and can grow thick side limbs, some of which become hollowed out over time. The large levels of deadwood are retained within the tree and provide a huge number of different niches for a myriad of insects and other wildlife. The trunk becomes increasingly deeply fissured and cavities develop and, as they age, the furthermost highest branches die back so that the crown of the tree forms lower down to conserve energy and resources.

As there is always light available in such wide open spaces, the trunk becomes a haven for a number of beetles. The deadwood in parts of the tree is warmed by the sun making this feature important for the tree dwelling fauna as well as the flora. Fungal fruiting bodies and a high number of interdependent wildlife species mean that each oak supports over 2,500 different wildlife species or organisms

Parklands are also important as the lack of ploughing means the soil structure is left largely intact meaning that the complex ecosystem of the subterranean world is undisturbed. They have extensive root systems that help prevent soil erosion, stabilise slopes, and improve water infiltration. The network of roots creates a firm grip on the soil, reducing the risk of landslides and erosion during heavy rainfall. This is not so relevant here at Highclere but something to bear in mind. Additionally, the fallen leaves and acorns create a rich layer of organic matter promoting nutrient recycling, and enhancing fertility.

Oaks absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in their biomass and the soil. Mature oak trees and forests have the potential to store substantial amounts helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regulate the Earth’s climate. Oaks can live for up to 1,000 years but these two are only middle aged at about 400 years old.

Oaks have captivated humans for centuries with their strength, beauty, and resilience. Once considered sacred, they hold a special place in our hearts. The phrase ‘heart of oak’ reflects a naval anthem and oaks were essential to the success of the British navy. When these Highclere trees were young saplings Elizabeth I was standing at Tilbury encouraging  the navy to fight against the Spanish Armada. She placed her “chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of {her}..subjects”.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), daughter of King Heny VIII, survived a childhood of endless political intrigues before succeeding to the throne in 1558. As queen she stated that she would ‘direct all my actions by good advice’ and ‘rule by good counsel”. She had learnt caution the hard way.

The next Elizabeth succeeded to the throne nearly 400 years later and, like her predecessor, valued listening and good advice: “I pledge myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust”.

Just by the two old oaks are two newer saplings. Planted in the reign of the late Queen Elizabeth, they represent resilience, longevity, constancy and courage: hearts of oak.

Happy New Year.