Monday, 10 February 2014

Cadzow Oaks

This is a magical place. An ancient oak wood.  A precious fragment of the 'wild wood' that we are incredibly lucky to have still. 300 Sessile oaks (quercus petraea) growing above the Avon Water Gorge in Lanarkshire. This 'wild wood' of the popular imagination is now described by scientists as 'woodland pasture'.When the ice began to retreat 10 000 years ago, living things began to move in gradually from the south,  lichens, mosses, fungi and ferns then seed bearing plants and finally trees. As soon as the Neolithic people returned to Scotland, with their animals after the Ice Age, they began to manage the environment. They exploited it for hunting, grazing, fuel and food and it turned out that woodland flourished under human management.

Coppicing allowed light to fall on the forest floor which encouraged germination and new growth. The multi-trunked oaks at Cadzow are evidence of coppicing long, long ago. An important consequence of this act of decapitation was to confer virtual immortality upon the severed stump. A coppiced tree lives for much  longer than a maiden tree, almost forever, forever when compared to human lives.

Dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) has dated many of the trees to c1460, at the time the oaks were enclosed in a park, however the oldest of them may well date to the reign of David 1 (1124-1153) which would make the Cadzow oaks the oldest living trees in Scotland.

These veteran trees  have had the space to grow and develop their own  extraordinary contorted shapes. Many of the trees are what is known as stag headed with bleached dead branches sticking out from the living crowns. This is a characteristic of veteran oaks and is one of the tree's  survival mechanisms. As the trunks begin to age, the outer branches die back to conserve  the tree's resources, it then forms a newer crown lower down.

Up close these veteran trees are as extraordinary as they are from a distance. Their trunks are gnarled and twisted, festooned with epiphyte ferns, with mosses and epicormic twigs sprouting whiskery from the rough bark. The hollows and crevices are home to many species of invertebrate creatures and insects, some of them so rare that Cadzow has been declared an S.S.S.I. or Site of Special Scientific Interest.

One of the defining characteristics of woodland pasture is that the trees are spaced out  from each other, standing in open grass land, cropped by deer, wild boar and aurochs and later by cattle, sheep and pigs. Trees growing in an open savannah is a landscape that has always been loved by people and stirs something  deep within the human psyche. Perhaps we recognize our original forest home. A place to get lost in, a place to hide in. And as Chateaubriand observed, 'forests were the first temples of God.'

The Cadzow oaks were once a part of one of the royal forests established by David 1 (1124-1153). Before  his reign, land tenure in Scotland was still based on the old Celtic and Norse traditions. David 1 systematically introduced the (alien) feudal system into Scotland in which sovereignty is vested in the Crown. He created the first burghs, founded monasteries, established sheriffs jurisdictions and granted feudal charters to the Norman knights and those Scots who supported him. Royal forests including Cadzow were established where henceforth no one could hunt without the monarch's permission.

By the early 14th Century Cadzow had passed into the hands of the Hamilton family. In the early 16th Century Cadzow was enclosed in a park formed by closing off a bend in the Avon Water to form a hunting reserve. The Hamilton family built the 'castle in the woods of Hamilton', now known as Cadzow castle on the edge of the gorge. Hunting remained at the heart of land use in Cadzow and in the 17th Century the duke of Hamilton built the magnificent hunting lodge of Chatelherault on the eastern side of the gorge. However by this time the fox was fast becoming the quarry of choice leaving deer as merely graceful adornments to the landscape.

In the mid 19th Century the woodland landscape of Cadzow inspired  the Cadzow artists a group of landscape painters. The Cadzow oaks passed into the care of to the state in 1973, in lieu of death duties after the death of the 14th  Duke of Hamilton, and now form part of the Chatelherault Country Park