Mighty Oaks or Mighty Wimps in Moray?

By Mick Drury - November 2021

The Forres area is well endowed with woodland to explore, including former policy woods at

Sanquhar and Cluny Hill, now in Moray Council or Community Woodland ownership; the Lower Findhorn Woods SSSI; and the famed Darnaway Forest.

Within all of these there are some fine old oaks, many of which are getting shaded out, usually by beech, with the crowns suffering dieback. In his popular book Peter Wohlleben (2015) discusses this dynamic in a rather cruelly titled chapter, Mighty Oak or Mighty Wimp?; he notes that below ground competition between the two species will also be significant.

One oak at Sanquhar I’ve been particularly concerned about, as it’s on a regular walk that I take. It has a huge spreading crown, dying back, partly due in this case to sycamore shading. The Council are planning to remove a large dead limb above a path, but otherwise don’t have the resources to consider halo thinning and concerns about soil compaction. Kate Holl’s article (2018) reviews the place of beech and sycamore in Scotland’s native woods and suggests a way to consider management options.

I was curious about the age of ‘my’ oak at Sanquhar (above). A paper some years ago in Scottish Forestry (Phillips, 2001) looked at ageing the famed oaks at St Johns Meads on the Findhorn River, within the SSSI. Some of these are stupendous trees and are thought locally to be many hundreds of years old. The largest tree had a dbh of 310cm in 2001, and was estimated to be 727 years old given the average ring width he calculated at 2.1mm. Using this formula ‘my’ oak would be around 400 years old.

I contacted Coralie Mills to seek her views and was surprised by her response. ‘Those oak trees are so fat because they were coppiced in the 18th C and their multiple stems are fused. We cored at least one of the very fat ones, and worked on several disks from previously felled oaks there, and proved this. We did not find any stems earlier than the 18th C. Of course the tree organisms could be much older, we can only age the stems - which in this case are regrowth after an 18th C coppicing episode’. She adds ‘Girth is a hugely unreliable guide to age in Scottish trees, especially broadleaves, because growing conditions are so variable across even short distances - and management histories are complex’. And she says that the dbh ageing method has been based mainly on data from English oaks.

Meanwhile I counted the rings on a recently felled oak in another spot above the Findhorn river and reckoned an approximate age of 190, the tree having a dbh of 0.84m; these measurements relate vaguely to Phillips’ data. The FC Information Note on ageing of large or veteran trees (authored by White 1998) describes the ageing method in some detail, with attention to the changing tree growth phases. It presents data for site variation based on the available evidence, although that quoted is restricted to ring widths from the early growth stage of the species mentioned. It’s unclear from what regions the trees were sampled … a worked example is from the English Midlands. He acknowledged that the data was incomplete and would be subject to revision, however I’m uncertain if anything further has been published on this.

Meanwhile, elsewhere within the SSSI on the Darnaway estate, recent work has been undertaken to remove beech. The SSSI management objective states ‘To maintain the native woodland habitats and natural woodland dynamics’. In 2010 SNH (now NS) recognised that ‘the regeneration of beech had reached the point where the site was considered in unfavourable condition. Oak regeneration was almost non-existent in the parts of the site dominated by beech’. The local regeneration of sycamore, non-native conifers and rhododendron were also noted. The Lobarion lichen community, best developed in the more open mixed ash woodland, was also considered to be in unfavourable condition. (NS SiteLink). Additionally, there is the impact of beech shading and leaf litter on ground flora communities.

The SSSI lies within four estates, with Darnaway undertaking recent work to remove beech, a pilot project funded by NS. In some places, given precipitous slopes, this has involved rope work and the use of ring barking or glyphosate ecoplugs, or bio-plastic alternatives, rather than felling. Attention to the amenity of the site has been important, given the stunning vistas along the gorge; and public safety has become more of an issue with increased use of the river below, including regular rafting adventures and the popularity of wild swimming. The estate would like to do more when funding allows and are looking at gradual change over a 50 year timescale. Some planting of oak, in tubes, has been undertaken since the late 1990’s. The Logie Estate would also be interested in similar management if further funding becomes available, and the associated sawmill is looking to develop the market for beech, eg for quality flooring. If there are any places in Britain where management has been limited and remnant old growth might remain, this would be one, so the argument for conservation is, I believe, strong. The slopes are inaccessible in places, with a good range of trees: oak, ash, alder, elm, aspen, gean, bird cherry, rowan, Scots pine, birch, juniper, hazel, holly, in addition to snags, fallen deadwood and phoenix trees. The adjoining Darnaway Forest to the west of the Findhorn river covers some 3000 ha, a former Royal Forest, famed in legend as the best oak forest in Britain, and supplying great timbers for ships and buildings in medieval times. Large scale plantings took place at least since the late 18th and early 19th century, 10 million pine, with 1 million oak, plus other broadleaves, including beech and sweet chestnut; larch, and later other conifer species followed. Francis, the 9th Earl of Moray 1737-1810, became known as ‘The Tree Planter’ wanting in particular to plant an oak forest. See Phillips (1998, 2001) for more on this history.

I joined a recent RSFS visit to Darnaway and was interested to see that they are now also felling beech in the wider forest away from the SSSI, to conserve mature oaks dating from the 9th Earl’s time, these getting shaded out. Some of the oaks were already on their last roots so to speak, a few dead, but many are responding fairly well, some with a lot of epicormic growth. Apparently the current Earl has asked for this work to be done. In these coupes (e.g. photo below), oak regeneration is being protected within small fences, roe deer height, and some recent planting has been undertaken using tubes.

Like his lordship, I admit to having an emotional attachment to the oak, as many folk do ... it’s embedded in our culture. As Dryden put it:

The monarch oak, the patriarch of the trees, shoots rising up and spreads by slow degrees. Three centuries he grows, and three he stays supreme in state; and in three more decays’.

More rationally there is not that much oak woodland locally, most of it ‘threatened’ by beech, and you will know the argument about associated biodiversity. So I’m generally pleased to see the control of beech, especially in the Findhorn gorge, and indeed we are carrying out similar work in the small area of former oak policy woodland that I’ve recently become a trustee for (see forresfriends.com). However, I have wondered is there a rewilding debate here, beech replacing oak as a natural process that probably would have occurred by now without human intervention? Then there’s the carbon question … should we leave these trees standing? And given climate change predictions for beech in southern Britain, e.g Jump (2016), will we value beech woodland more in the ‘future natural’ Scotland?

As I write I’m looking out towards a fabulous autumn fiery-russet beech canopy, raw-burnt sienna my partner says, highlighted by the sun against a dark sky. However, these trees were planted for landscaping reasons, without oak nearby. On balance I’m for the oak in our semi-natural native woods. As Kate concludes (Holl 2018), ‘in the end, ecologically, it matters less whether or not we consider beech native to Scotland, as to what its impact on our native woods is.’

Lastly, returning to dendrochronology, if you’re looking for a xmas present for a tree enthusiast, or yourself, I can strongly recommend Tree Story by Valerie Trouet. When I turned the final page I thought ‘my life has been wasted … I should have been a dendro person’. Perhaps there is still time, to dabble at least.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to Coralie … see http://dendrochronicle.co.uk/; to Ben Clinch, Forest Manager, Darnaway Estate; and to Mark Councill and Alec Laing of Logie Timber/Estate.

Postscript: Look out for a potential site visit to the area in 2022.


Jump, A. 2016. See: https://www.stir.ac.uk/news/2016/06/droughts-affect-british-beech-most/ Holl, K. 2018. Beech and sycamore in Scotland’s native woods - a way forward?

Scottish Forestry. Vol 72. No 1. Nature Scot. 2011. Site management statement for the Lower Findhorn Woods SSSI. See https://sitelink.nature.scot/site/1104 Phillips, M. 1998.

Historical information about the ancient forest of Darnaway Estate, Morayshire. Scottish Forestry. Vol 52. No 1. Download from https://www.forestry-memories.org.uk/picture/number1060/

Phillips, M. 2001. The history of the ancient oak forest of Darnaway and its timber. Scottish Forestry. Vol 55. No 3. White, J. 1998.

Estimating the age of large trees in Britain.

Forestry Authority. Research information note no 250. See: https://www.ancienttreeforum.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/John-White-estimating-file-pdf. pdf

Wohlleben, P. 2015. The hidden life of trees. Greystone Books.

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